As a genre, the rom-com has all but died — what’s a woman to do when at the end of a long working week she sits down in a theater hoping for solace and a thin but meaningful sliver of real romance and all that happens on-screen is a lot of preachy, self-helpy schlock? To all rom-com filmmakers — please understand that most women don’t want to be told what to do in a relationship, they want to be cajoled into admitting what they want and then to sit back and let the guys do all the work. Is that so much to ask? Oh well.

Fortunately for us, a few poignant love stories are still being made. They’re not easy to find, and it’s always a surprise to encounter one (like coming upon a butterfly in the midst of heavy traffic). “(500) Days of Summer” is one such sighting. Delicately hued, subtle and nuanced, it’s easy to forgive the occasional lapse into whimsy (like the parentheses in the title) to concentrate instead on the originality of its storytelling and the awkward, endearing soulfulness of the characters. Director Marc Webb used to make music-videos before launching into this, his first feature — and he seems extremely attuned to the heavens and hells and purgatories of love, its many shades and textures. Perhaps it’s because he’s used to thinking in lyrics or random lines of poetry, rather than rushing headlong into the banalities of a foregone conclusion.

And banal is the one thing “(500) Days of Summer” is not. It avoids the predicament like the bubonic plague. Like the titular character Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), the film would rather DIE than do anything as ordinary as say, go out for burgers in a T-shirt and jeans. Summer is unfailingly, romantically attired: mod-girl dresses offsetting her slim figure and glossy bangs, she prefers pancakes to bagels, but only when she feels like eating at all. When Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sees her walk into his office (he works for a greeting card company) as his boss’ new assistant, he’s immediately intrigued. And it doesn’t take long before he falls deeply, irrevocably, into the marshland of love.

(500) Days of Summer
Director Marc Webb
Run Time 120 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Jan. 15, 2010

With his dark locks and knit vests over ironed shirts, Tom looks and behaves like a love-struck Victorian hero — passion whirling and fomenting beneath a politely restrained shell. Tom and Summer listen to the same music (The Smiths), they have the same sense of humor (they think Ikea is HILARIOUS) and both feel that the card business is a huge joke. They are, it seems, made for each other. But when Tom bares his heart and wants to declare his love, Summer holds back, retreating into a private world where Tom’s not invited to follow. “Love doesn’t really exist,” she tells him. “It’s just an illusion.”

This “love story” doesn’t unfold so much as expose itself in slippery fragments — none of the events is revealed chronologically and each is cataloged by the number of the day of their 500-day relationship. On day 488, for example, Tom and Summer hold hands on a park bench and we see a ring on her wedding finger. Jump forward several scenes (but back in time) and a hugely depressed Tom is going out of the house for the first time in three days to buy some Twinkies and Jack Daniels. Somewhere in the 200s, Tom and Summer are curled up on the sofa and she’s telling him for the umpteenth time that she really likes Tom but is just not interested in being anyone’s girlfriend.

It seems that Summer has what is known in relationship-speak as the “commitment problem” — the result of being the object of everyone’s affections when growing up. Her independence is intriguing because there’s no chip on her shoulder; Summer has never looked for love because she’s never felt the need. Her inherent sweetness — to Tom and everyone else — is impersonal and undiscriminating, leaving Tom hooked and addicted and miserable. Does Tom get Summer? As the story zigzags toward an ending that is cynical and even a little vengeful, you see that the answer to the question doesn’t really matter. More to the point is how love is unknowable and nonsensical, defying analysis and psychobabble. Tom had it with Summer and, lucky guy, savored the package in full with all its glorious delights and howling hurtfulness.

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