Right up there with the desire to pen the great American novel is the quest to make the perfect romantic comedy. Though (500) Days isn't quite perfect, it's damn close, a brilliant deconstruction of a form that's calcified into Japanese tea service formalism.
In the average rom-com, the leads spend lots of time up front hating each other, but this one plays out more realistically, with the warm center slowly dissolving into chilly discomfort. Like a jigsaw puzzle spread across the floor, the movie offers scattered glimpses of a relationship; caroming off seemingly random episodes spanning the entire romance. We bounce around from a blissful Ikea trip on Day 54, to utter desolation on Day 314, shot in black-and-white French New Wave melancholy.
Lovelorn Tom (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is a victim of movies, pop songs and even the greeting cards he cranks out, all of which hard-sell him on the idea of true love. He's all too ready to fall hard when his gorgeous new co-worker Summer (Zooey Deschanel) corners him in the elevator and tells him she likes the Smiths song on his iPod.
The script, by the guys who wrote Pink Panther 2 of all things, is clever and smart, though in it's too-cutesy moments you get the sneaking sense that it went through a few more conventional drafts. First-time feature director Marc Webb lends the material an inventive freshness that makes shopworn clichés into well-earned wisdom, and, like Michel Gondry, his music video background is actually a bonus. He throws gimmicks at the screen that shouldn't work, including voiceover narration, animation, even a jubilant morning-after sex number scored to Hall and Oates. The best is a split-screen sequence that shows the gap between Tom's expectations vs. reality at a dinner party playing out in real time. Such tricks remind us of the immortal Annie Hall, but it's the story's honesty and the collective skill of the actors that earns the comparison.
Deschanel solidifies her standing as Gen Y's Jean Seberg, a beautiful, sassy creature who's both inviting and totally, crushingly unknowable. She's irresistible, with raven hair and big, round eyes like telescope lenses, twinkling with reflections from the cosmos.
The soundtrack might've floated down from the fluffiest cloud in rock heaven, with Regina Spector, Black Lips and the Doves all swooning. It's the kind of movie you want to rub all over yourself, it's so graceful and lovable you'll overlook its flaws.
In fact, if it must be said, it's just a little bit like falling in love.
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Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.