Love, Actually

500 days of summer 2 cred Love, Actually (500) Days of Summer
Running time 95 minutes
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

Fresh and slightly off the beaten track, (500) Days of Summer gives rom-coms about confused yuppies in love a welcome face-lift. The title does not refer to a season of prolonged sunshine. It’s about a year and a half in the life of a bewildered guy irrevocably in love with an unconventional girl named Summer. God save us from hyphenated boys and girls whose parents name them after J. D. Salinger characters, but thanks to two wonderful, offbeat performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, this movie has charm to spare. It looks you right in the eye and tells the truth.

Tom is an aspiring architect reduced by the recession to writing greeting cards for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Summer is a new secretary from Michigan. They don’t even meet cute. Just around the mimeograph machine and water cooler. But he falls madly in love despite the fact that they never exchange one word of any interest. Two attractive young people searching for a reason to stay interested in anything beyond their good looks is a hard thing to keep an audience going with, but it is to the everlasting credit of director Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber that all temptations to cheapen the comic sweetness with the kinds of contrived gimmicks and insulting sight gags that plague movies with Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Jack Black and Seth Rogen are wisely resisted. You find yourself laughing, for a change, at situations that are wry, unpredictable and as real as inhaling.

Tom, dusted with the irresistible charm of Mr. Gordon-Levitt, is an example of romantic optimism in a world of modern cynics with the attention span of Jack Russells. Summer is an intelligent and adventurous catch, much sought after by the other office males, but highly suspicious of serious relationships. As the calendar marks off the days, by the third month they’re still playing it “casual.” Tom is consumed in a giddy fantasy of spending the rest of his life with her, but Summer’s on-again, off-again flirtation adds up to nothing more than a frustrating dalliance without a firm commitment. His dedication to winning the girl of his dreams, and her determination to remain free and independent, undefined by the expectations of the opposite sex, keep the movie on its toes, and the two leading performances keep the viewer glued to the screen to see what happens next. What happens is the fact that things don’t always work out like greeting cards. Dreams are what we pursue until reality sets in.

Ms. Deschanel has eyes like big blue jawbreakers that pull you in defenselessly. In most of her movies, she looks great even when she has nothing to say. That is not the problem in (500) Days of Summer. What she says is as provocative as it is unconventional. As dead and one-dimensional as Mr. Gordon-Levitt was in the awful Brick, he truly blooms here. Cool and preppy as a Ralph Lauren model, he’s never been more alive. He even sings and dances his way through his own musical number, replete with animated Disney bluebirds. His eyes narrow at the sides like a coddled, baby-faced gangster, missing nothing, and his lips are always on the verge of pouring his heart out to anyone who will listen. I haven’t seen college-age angst so beautifully shared since Splendor in the Grass.

The great thing about this jump start on the dog-eared genre of unrequited love, one that doesn’t pan out the way you expect, is its refusal to traffic in clichés. Although the presumption that pretty women and smart, dashing young men can have it all and still want more is a bit naïve in this age of superficial achievement, this film has humor and warmth, thanks to the subtle, restrained and thoroughly engaging chemistry of its two stars, and character development that is good-natured at heart, and never dishonest. Nothing happens the way you have come to expect from Sandra Bullock movies. The film does not have a conventional Valentine’s Day finale, but although the girl exercises a woman’s prerogative and the boy is crushed, the way they adjust to fate, and move on, suggests the best in human decency and reluctant, postponed maturity. What a happy antidote to vile box office garbage like Brüno. It leaves a lump in the throat of idealism interrupted. Coincidence is all there is. Just like real life, no?

rreed@observer.com