'500 Days of Summer'

Convoluted, sometimes cloying but ultimately winning romantic comedy is a crowd pleaser.

Boy gets girl and boy loses girl in convoluted, sometimes cloying but ultimately winning fashion in “500 Days of Summer.” Stylish feature debut by longtime musicvideo director Marc Webb goes out of its way to take an unconventional approach to telling one of the oldest stories in the book, only to prevail by embracing the fact that the fundamental things apply — a cute leading couple, a rooting interest in their welfare and a genuine feeling for heartbreak and the belief that life must go on. Set for July 24 release, this looks like a real commercial winner with young audiences.

In an era when a house style is fundamentally antithetical to the nature of the film business, Fox Searchlight could now be said to be developing something akin to such a style, or at least a keen feel for the tastes of its bright and youthful niche audience. It’s hard to watch “Summer” without at times thinking of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Juno,” for the time-jumping structure and lustrous visual style of the former, the strong identification with young lovers of the latter and the musical distinctiveness of both.

It’s spoiling nothing to reveal that the central romance doesn’t work out, as the structure of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s script spins on offering moments from the entire relationship in unchronological bits and pieces with the aim of creating an emotional mosaic. Impact of the same piece presented in normal order would probably be nearly identical, but while the temporal jigsaw puzzle will strike some as an attention-getting mannerism, the device will likely serve its purpose in making a sentiment-based story seem distinctive and unusual enough to be cool to its intended audience.

At its heart, this is a story of the devastation of romantic rejection, the spirit-crushing defeat of being dumped by the person you believed was the love of your life, told from the male point of view. A firm comic perspective is established from the outset, as is the nonlinear structure; the title conveys the number of days that elapse from when Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) first lays eyes on Summer (Zooey Deschanel) to when they say their final goodbye. Pic opens on day 488, and numbers keep popping up onscreen to indicate the time of the action.

Tom, a good-looking guy on the shy side, studied to be an architect but now works in downtown Los Angeles writing greeting cards at an office that looks impossibly hip and fashionably appointed for the inane products the company produces. As soon as his boss hires the lovely Summer as his new assistant, Tom’s a goner. While they mildly bond over mutual musical tastes, it takes a drunken office karaoke party to light their fires. Even then, Tom is too reserved to make the first move, which she eventually does in the office copy room.

Webb adroitly captures the moods of love’s different stages and celebrates Tom’s finally scoring with Summer in a boisterous, bring-the-house-down musical production number in a central L.A. park. A certain imbalance permeates the relationship even at its peak, since Tom believes in destiny with one true love, while Summer just wants someone fun and regards amour as a fantasy. Still, things go well for a while until, for no apparent reason, Summer turns cooler.

The leads provide everything a romantic comedy needs in terms of flair and likability. Craggier and less cookie-cutter than the young pretty boys normally seen in such fare, Gordon-Levitt expressively alternates between enthusiasm and forlorn disappointment in the manner Jack Lemmon could, and it makes you really root for the guy. After some years as a favorite enthusiasm of indie fanboys, Deschanel seems to be truly coming into her own now, and she enchantingly conveys Summer’s allure, elusiveness and quicksilver nature.

The film falls far short, however, in the comic-relief supporting roles, an area in which the genre usually affords riches. Tom’s manic workmate McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) and longtime best friend Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) are supposed to provide sounding boards and morale boosts, but they are both deeply unfunny sub-sitcom caricatures who throw the film tonally off-base whenever they’re around. Tom’s smarty pants, unnaturally mature teenage sister exemplifies the film’s unappealing strain of overweening cleverness.

Shot by Eric Steelberg (“Juno”), “500 Days” is very sharp visually and exhibits loads of energy without hyperventilating. Tom’s enduring architectural interests are wonderfully exploited through the underutilized downtown locations — Los Angeles Plaza plays a key role, and at one point Tom gives Summer an expert’s tour of choice old buildings. The color coordination of the locations, Laura Fox’s outstanding production design and Hope Hanafin’s costumes enrich the film’s lustrous look. The pic overflows with music, a bit obtrusively at times, but excerpts are smartly chosen.

500 Days of Summer

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of a Watermark production. Produced by Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters, Mason Novick, Steven J. Wolfe. Co-producer, Scott G. Hyman. Directed by Marc Webb. Screenplay, Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Eric Steelberg; editor, Alan Edward Bell; music, Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen; production designer, Laura Fox; art director, Charles Varga Jr.; set decorator, Jennifer Lukehart; costume designer, Hope Hanafin; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), Lori Dovi; sound designer-supervising sound editor, Piero Mura; associate producer, Veronica Brooks; assistant director, Richard Graves; casting, Eyde Belasco. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 17, 2009. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Tom - Joseph Gordon-Levitt Summer - Zooey Deschanel McKenzie - Geoffrey Arend Rachel - Chloe Grace Moretz Paul - Matthew Gray Gubler Vance - Clark Gregg Alis - Rachel Boston Girl - Minka Kelly

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