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'(500) Days of Summer': A tale of dangerous rock 'n' roll romanticism?

July 15, 2009 |  7:01 pm


The romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer” doesn’t come with a parental advisory. It looks and feels harmless and whimsical enough, even coming complete with a mid-movie dance sequence to Hall & Oates’ early ‘80s hit “You Make My Dreams.”

But don’t be fooled -- “(500) Days of Summer” has the potential of inflicting lifelong damage to young music geeks. Witness an early scene in the film between Zooey Deschanel’s Summer and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom. She a compendium of adorable quirks (she name-checked Belle & Sebastian in her high school yearbook!), and he a music-obsessed twentysomething -- the guy who pulls out the Clash and the Pixies at karaoke parties but needs significant prodding to even attend one.

Sharing an elevator, Tom is too shy, too flustered and insecure to say hello to Summer. No matter – she recognizes that he’s blasting the Smiths -- a cinematic signal for a romantic intellectual -- and observes that Tom has good taste in music.

That is how we know this is a fairy tale, as it’s a movie moment that can forever doom those of a certain disposition. “Those who are expecting someone to hear them listening to the Smiths in an elevator?” Deschanel laughs after being told of my fear. “That’s funny.”

It's all part of the alternate reality conjured in "(500) Days of Summer," a film where a mutual appreciation of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is cause for a love connection. The film pays lip service to the concept explored in “High Fidelity,” namely that a life listening to lovesick pop songs from the likes of the Smiths can permanently wreck one’s romantic outlook, yet ultimately turns the irritable office geek into a hero.

Though Gordon-Levitt and director Marc Webb have gone to great pains to explain that “Summer,” which opens in theaters this Friday, is not your typical rosy romantic comedy, it’s practically “Snow White” compared to Nick Hornby’s 1995 book "High Fidelity" and Stephen Frears’ 2000 film adaptation. The ending may not be your standard Hollywood bow tie – Summer and Tom are broken up in the film’s opening moments -- but it’s also not designed to alter the worldview of the hopeless romantics in the crowd.

The film is told entirely from the perspective of Tom, and rock ‘n’ roll plays a large role in his infatuation with Summer. He’s floored that she pulls out Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town” at the local bar (the Redwood, for those really local), and finds it fascinating that her favorite Beatle is Ringo. If the film doesn’t celebrate passive-aggressiveness, it does make it look rather cute, especially when Tom is turning up his iTunes playlist in the hope that Summer will notice when she walks by in the office.

“Obviously, it’s an extremely biased movie,” Deschanel says. “It’s completely from Tom’s point of view. The first draft I got of the script was even more of that way, and was more about Tom thinking about Summer, who wasn’t in it that much. It was about Tom’s brooding rather than a relationship. I thought it was a really entertaining script, but it wasn’t for me.”

Deschanel, whose band with M. Ward, She & Him, covers the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” on the soundtrack, was won over by a rewrite. Ultimately, Deschanel said, the new take put the emphasis on the life of a relationship rather than what was going on inside Tom’s head, even though she was still playing what she describes as a "subjective character."

The romance blossoms and falls apart under a well-placed score. Webb gets the most of the Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition.” The first minute and a half of the Australian band’s single is riveting stuff, full of glistening guitar notes, a soulful falsetto and the dreamy anticipation of a budding romance.

Much of Webb’s soundtrack choices would fit comfortably on an NPR playlist, but it fits the librarian chic of the film. Regina Spektor’s “Us” opens the movie with a piano rush, and its lyrics (“the tourists come and stare at us”) set the tone for Tom’s self-important heartache. Later, Spektor’s more damning “Hero” and the Simon & Garfunkel nugget “Bookends” are loaded with orchestral despair.

As for Deschanel, She & Him’s cover of “Please Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” is a hazy take on the Smiths’ number, a wash of acoustic guitars that partially obscure Deschanel’s casually warm delivery.

“That’s the song that both of us felt was more in our range of abilities,” Deschanel says of the decision to cover the tune. “I would like to think I could cover that Hall & Oates song, but I don’t think I would do a great job at it. That’s less in my real of my ability. I’m more Morrissey than I am Daryl Hall.”

Slower, and less matter-of-fact than the Morrissey original, She & Him grace the song in a way that it feels as if it’s coming from another time and place -- a world, perhaps, where a smashing vinyl collection can get you a date.

--Todd Martens

Photo: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in "(500) Days of Summer." Credit: Fox Searchlight.