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'(500) Days of Summer' ignores Hollywood's romantic comedy script — and that's a plus

Don't you wish that you could fall in love like people do in the movies?

That's where Mr. and Ms. Right for Each Other meet cute, and they may not get along for starters but that'll change. All it takes is a pop song montage or two, maybe a misunderstanding or contrived crisis ultimately bringing them closer. Everyone gets what they deserve by the fadeout, especially true love.

So neatly packaged, so Hollywood.

Forget it. Love doesn't happen that way.

Love is trial and error, sometimes messy and so unpredictable that cueing the appropriate song for a particular moment is nearly impossible. Love doesn't fit into a creative formula, which Hollywood may realize again when a bracing new romantic comedy reaches theaters.

(500) Days of Summer, opening Friday, is a charming shock to the status quo, starting with proclaiming itself a case of boy-meets-girl "but you should know up front that this isn't a love story."

Director Marc Webb crafts a time-twisting anatomy of a relationship that won't work, gently tweaking rom-com cliches along the way. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) aren't too beautiful and perfect for viewers to believe they can't find mates. Nothing outrageous happens in real life (although Tom's post-coital musical fantasy, set to a Hall & Oates hit, is a show-stopper).

Otherwise, the soundtrack of Tom and Summer's fling isn't a batch of classic standards but an audiophile's mix tape. There's no abrupt shift in emotions, rather a reluctant erosion of interest while preserving affection. Happily ever after is possible but not the way either person planned.

The movie's boldest detour from convention is its three-card monte narrative, shuffling Tom's 500 days longing for Summer into seemingly random order, starting with depressing day 488. Yet there's a method at work, creating a mosaic of memories; day 35 when Tom and Summer first make love is followed immediately by day 303 when he frets that it's over, and so on.

Romantic comedies typically tell stories chronologically from points A to Z. Not here. Those points (at least A to Y) are revealed within the first 10 minutes before the movie plays hopscotch through everything in between, as memories do.

(500) Days of Summer undeniably feels more genuine than the typical romantic comedy, which is what Webb and his screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, intended.

"At the heart of all romantic comedies there's a genuine desire to contemplate relationships, love and romance," Webb said in a telephone interview. "But the formula is so set that it just gets stale. I don't identify with that. That doesn't mean I'm not romantic but I'm a realist. Hollywood sells you a bill of goods a lot of times.

"After a while it rings of (untruth): the most beautiful actor and the most beautiful actress and this crazy fake obstacle that keeps them apart. The only obstacle we have is that they're trying to figure out how they feel about each other."

Neustadter has an even more personal reason for becoming "fed up" with rom-com patterns.

"I had my heart broken and couldn't find a movie to make me feel better," Neustadter said in a separate, shared telephone interview with Weber.

"But every movie I watched was, like, if you look like Matthew McConaughey your life is going to be fine. That wasn't helpful. Or if you do some kind of dumb thing to impress her you won't get arrested, you'll just get her back."

Weber chimed in: "I go on lots of dates but I've never been on a date to an aquarium and got bitten by a dolphin. The crazy animal attacks, hijinks and set pieces aren't real. I don't think anyone relates to that."

So, Neustadter and Weber wrote (500) Days of Summer, embracing the genre's pre-formula roots. There's a lot of Annie Hall in the movie, from Deschanel's lah-de-dah performance to a split-screen scene depicting Tom's dreamy expectations on one side and cold reality on the other. The Graduate inspires one-liners and camera angles then, in a bold stroke, offers Benjamin and Elaine's own fadeout during a movie date to underscore the uncertainty of Tom and Summer's affair.

"Tom makes exactly the same mistake that Benjamin Braddock makes: believing that happiness depends upon another person, and if you get that person you're going to be happy," Neu- stadter said. "The Graduate ends a few seconds before the feeling comes over (Benjamin), that idea of 'What if I'm wrong?' "

The same uneasy thought crossed Neustadter's and Weber's minds while shopping their screenplay to movie studios. Hollywood gets more attached to its formulas — regardless of genre — each time they produce hits. The writers wondered if their fresh approach was wrong each time the script was rejected.

"People liked it but it sat around for a while," Weber said. "The comments we got from people who didn't get it, or who wanted to make that other kind of romantic comedy, were amazing."

Neustadter recalled one meeting with a studio executive: "He said: 'I love this. I want to make this. Can it be about anything other than a relationship?' I was, like, which script am I here for? Which one did you read? Hollywood is resistant to buying or trying anything different."

Yet that hard line against "different" is softening with the release of (500) Days of Summer and two more unusual Gen-Y rom-coms in August: Adam, starring Hugh Dancy as a lovestruck man with Asperger's syndrome, and Paper Heart, in which Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi fall in love while making a documentary on the subject.

"If these movies do well, it will call into question the heart of the romantic comedy," Webb said. "Maybe."

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/ movies.

A relationship guru weighs in

Why do romantic comedies — formulaic as The Proposal or unconventional as (500) Days of Summer — continue to enchant moviegoers? We asked John Gray, author of the bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, for his take on the rom-com phenomenon:

Why do romantic comedies endure?

We like to laugh at ourselves. We get too serious in our relationships, so people have a chance to look at their mistakes and laugh at them. Comedies exaggerate the mistakes enormously. (They) exaggerate all the things that annoy and bother the opposite sex. Underneath it all we get to see that people really are quite wonderful on the inside, even if on the surface they don't always seem that way. The happily-ever-after is the hope everyone has that they'll find someone and don't have to keep searching.

So many rom-coms aren't believable, how can anyone feel reassured?

Even though the process of getting there is completely unrealistic, when you see two people — even actors following a script — it evokes inside of us the feeling that it is possible. That's a part of us that we're yearning to find and experience. It's why we read (romantic) books, as well, to connect with parts of us that we didn't know existed.

Yet (500) Days of Summer declares right away there won't be a traditional happy ending.

The majority of relationships do end happily, though. In this case, I assume that both people get what they want, which is not each other but a chance to start again, learning and having grown in some way. When one door closes, another opens. If we can learn and grow from a past relationship that didn't work out, we're better suited to find the right person next time. Hollywood always has to end with a promise.

Steve Persall, Times film critic

for more

Coming Thursday

Times film critic Steve Persall gives (500) Days of Summer an A. Read his full review in Thursday's Weekend section.

'(500) Days of Summer' ignores Hollywood's romantic comedy script — and that's a plus 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 5:30am]
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