Written by: Melissa Muenz, Special to CC2K
Two new romantic comedies distinguish themselves from the pack.
All genres have their tropes, and the time honored tradition of the romantic comedy has a couple of its own. Tried and true methods include: "A couple must separate due to extenuating circumstances, and they must rethink their priorities, but then love wins out," or "An unlikely pair find themselves in the midst of a weird premise, but unexpectedly fall in love," or "A couple breaks up, but then they are forced to spend time together due to extenuating circumstances, and then love wins out." Some variations involve a third party. Et cetera.
But films don't have to be wacky or unlikely to be good. They just have to accomplish whatever it is they set out to do. Summer has been kind enough to bestow two such films upon us thus far, one of which is in theaters today.
Away We Go and 500 Days of Summer aren't breaking new ground with their subject matter: One simply deals with a couple (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as the incredibly likable Burt and Verona) preparing themselves for parenthood, and the latter follows the relationship trajectory of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the intoxicating new romance phase through the heartbreak. So while we're not exactly in new territory, both films were enjoyable, memorable and well-done.
Another key rom-com technique is witty, quotable banter. If you wanted to, you could probably reconstruct the whole script of When Harry Met Sally just from the quotes section of IMDB.com. The script for Away We Go made for a very easy job for director Sam Mendes. With his last film, Revolutionary Road, Mendes was working from a Richard Yates story, and the result was incredibly melodramatic. Rather than a distraught couple screaming at each other, we have a story by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Anyone familiar with Eggers' writing can hear his voice through the entire film. The exchanges between Burt and Verona are comforting and sincere, and the situations they encounter on their pre-parental tour of America are comical, and at times, downright adorable. This kind of script is all it really takes to make a great flick. Burt and Verona are facing questions at the beginning of the film: Are we fuck ups? Will we make good parents? And for 98 minutes they explore variations on a theme: Families. Along the way we see them gain insights, and at the end of that time, they still are facing those questions. There are no twists, and there's just barely a climax. Away We Go was sincere, heartfelt and simple, and at the end of the movie, it was successful nonetheless. It was cinematic proof that you don't need to pander or be gimmicky to be good – you just have to do a few basic things right.
While 500 Days of Summer doesn't necessarily throw in unnecessary tropes either, it still throws quite a few techniques our way – most for the betterment of the film. Director Marc Webb's experience making music videos is apparent, but unlike so many flashy, over-styled, reference-dropping films like Nick and Norah's Self Aware Pop Culture Remark, Webb is here to use his skills for good in 500 Days of Summer. Tom's delightfully cheesy dance sequence and his morose montage of heartbreak are perhaps over the top, but rather than utilizing a gimmick for a gimmick's sake, each move is intended to aid in illustrating the arc of the romantic experience. 500 Days of Summer is surely smart, taking tips from Rob Reiner, all while referencing Ingmar Bergman and the Smiths, but these references are understated. At the end of the movie, you are feeling Tom's crushing blows rather than feeling bombarded with smug, winking film producers who found a few band names on Google.
Any and all style elements are an afterthought to Tom's story. The film cycles through his neuroses and memories of Summer using snippets and un-sequenced moments from their relationship. Zooey Deschanel's Summer is every inch of charming that you expect her to be, and Gordon-Levitt, known amongst movie dorks for his role in Brick, is finally confirmed as commercial leading man material here. He is a younger, more attractive Woody Allen figure, lamenting his lost love and learning his lessons. 500 Days of Summer succeeds most because it is dedicated to illustrating his experience. Again – not a new experience, but a sincere one. For this reason, it's a joy for viewers to take part in it.
Today's romantic comedies and heartwarming films tend to fall into one of two categories: The sweet, awkward Michael Cera vehicle that has devolved since the release of Juno, which is cute to watch but cringe-worthy due to its pandering to the youthful indie demographic, or movies like The Proposal – improbable premise with the annoyingly predictable outcome. 500 Days of Summer and Away We Go are a refreshing break from both prototypes.