Season of the fink: ‘(500) Days of Summer’ offers a quirky but not always satisfying vacation from (some) romantic comedy conventions

November 30, 2012

Director Marc Webb’s 2009 romantic comedy tries to break the romantic comedy mold.

And it tries hard — it really does! Instead of beginning with boy meets girl, (500) Days of Summer (parentheses in title — quirky!) actually starts with its male lead’s post-breakup meltdown. As his two best buddies and his sister try to console him, distraught Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) moans that the woman who has broken his heart is the One with whom he was meant to spend his life.

As the movie’s narrator warns us, this is a story about love — not a love story. The female lead herself warns Hansen early on that she doesn’t want a boyfriend. But Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have switched things up: In this movie, it’s the man who needs a commitment! (Gender role reversal — so unusual!)

The winsome heartbreaker here is Summer Fynn (oddball name — how indy!), winsomely played by Zooey Deschanel. Fynn and Hansen cross paths at a small greeting card company in Los Angeles where he is a frustrated architect cum writer and she is a Michigander cum Los Angeleno. She has just moved to California (simply because she wanted something different — mark of a free-thinker, y’all!) and gotten a job as an assistant to the card company’s CEO.

Fynn is irresistible to men although she is of average height and weight, the narrator rather irrelevantly notes. Hansen, who believes that everyone has one and only one soulmate thanks to a serious misreading of the movie The Graduate, falls for Fynn the moment he sees her. Then he discovers that she’s exactly the right kind of quirky: She likes the Smiths and all the other stuff he does! Hansen tries to play things cool, but it’s clear that he’s in deep trouble.

Surely Fynn senses that too. One day, she walks up to Hansen in the copy room, kisses him passionately and walks away, all without a word. She’s already told him that she just wants to be, essentially, friends with benefits. That’s exactly what develops. And, well, you sort of know the rest: Hansen’s heart ends up being broken at some point, and he resolves to win her back…

As I’ve (oh so subtly!) sought to indicate, (500) Days tries very hard to be different. And it succeeds, and it is charming — but only to an extent.

While Hansen has two close and age-appropriate male buddies, his true Wise Sidekick/Sounding Board is actually Rachel, his much younger sister junior high school sister, Rachel (Chloë Grace Moretz). At one point, she counsels Hansen not to be such a sap, albeit in much stronger (and more vulgar) terms. Moretz was 12 and Gordon-Levitt 28 when (500) Days was released. Having a kid play the sidekick different, and it works well in this film, but it’s still just a very small twist on a romantic comedy cliché.

(500) Days also plays with chronology, jumping around to different points in the nearly 17 months following the day Hansen first laid eyes on Fynn. (Title cards indicate where we are in the time line.) It differs from rom-com convention, and it’s an effective story-telling device — but again, it’s not exactly a breathtakingly novel innovation.

But a key problem with this film is that the main characters simply didn’t have much, well, character. It’s very much in keeping with many romantic comedies in that sense: The leads are good-looking, quirky, charming and…well, not much else. Hansen’s interest in architecture never felt like a truly deep passion for his character, merely a feature thrown into the script.

Fynn is even more of a cardboard cutout. As beautiful and charming as Deschanel is, to my mind, the character of Fynn didn’t seem nearly as interesting to me as the miniature art gallery that served as her apartment. Hansen makes a big deal about Fynn describing to him a dream that she’s never discussed with anyone else, but it left me yawning. (I might have felt differently had I been lying next to Deschanel as she described it, but still…)

And while Gordon-Levitt is handsome enough, and certainly much more pleasant to look at than I am, I never got a good sense for why Fynn would be seriously attracted to his character, carnally or otherwise — despite all the stuff they supposedly had in common.

Maybe Fynn’s flatness is a case of the movie’s structure working against itself, because we know that (a) she isn’t as infatuated with Hansen as he is with her and that (b) again, she will break his heart at some point. Then again, maybe her flatness is a byproduct of this movie being very much centered around Hansen and his often clueless point of view.

The movie’s opening “author’s note” offers evidence to support the latter theory. It insists that the following film is fictional and that any resemblance to actual persons “is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”

Fynn may be particularly flat, but Hansen is frustrating for reasons all his own. In a brief but memorable interrogation, one character asks Hansen if Fynn ever cheated on him, exploited him or she misled him about her inclination toward romance before the relationship began. She did none of those things, he admits.

So what’s Hansen’s beef? He fooled himself with his fantasies about romance. His being heartbroken is simply not Fynn’s fault. After all, if she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life with him, what is she supposed to do — pretend to be in love for the rest of her days simply in order to salve his ego? I ended up thinking that Hansen’s younger sister pegged the problem precisely when she told him to stop being so sappy.

Yet Hansen never seems to grasp that, acting as if Fynn’s been a fink, when really he’s at least as much to blame as she is. And the story takes a few turns that seem designed to make Fynn seem duplicitous, although, again, she never directly misleads Hansen.

There were certainly moments when I enjoyed and was moved by (500) Days of Summer. In the latter category, count the scenes where Hansen and Fynn are drifitng apart; I’ve certainly experienced those moments of quiet, partially repressed discontent when a relationship just isn’t working.

The filmmakers manage to resolve things neatly but not exactly nicely. Still, it holds out hope for the heartbroken and in fact has a message that they’d do well to heed. (Although, not to pat myself on the back too much, I easily predicted the name of the character with whom Hansen holds the movie’s final conversation — again, cliché police, hello?!)

Ultimately, (5oo) Days of Summer is an ambitious but flawed film that tries too hard in some areas (let’s be quirky!) but not enough in others (let’s add depth to our characters!). This is a pleasant enough diversion, and I’ll probably it watch it again at some point, but a masterpiece it certainly ain’t.

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