''(500) Days of Summer,'' ''Adam,'' and ''Paper Heart'' are some of the offbeat romantic comedies hitting theaters

By Christine Spines
Updated July 17, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

To hear Joseph Gordon-Levitt talk about (500) Days of Summer, you’d think it was a subversive call to arms, not an offbeat film about a messy office romance. But why can’t it be both? Gordon-Levitt, the movie’s besotted leading man, believes it strikes a blow against the tyranny of traditional romantic comedies. ”The relationship between the two characters in our movie felt like something that would happen in the world that we live in, as opposed to some propaganda fantasy of Hollywood’s to sell tickets,” says the actor, 28. ”Audiences our age are savvy. The same kind of hokey, pandering formulas are just not flying as well as they used to.”

Generation Y-ers can be an influential audience, full of early adopters who tweet and text their opinions fast and furiously. Without them, Juno, for instance, would likely never have become a $144 million phenom. So this summer, filmmakers are hoping to tap them again with unconventional films about the complexities of young love. There’s (500) Days, about a dreamer (Gordon-Levitt) who moons over an aloof free spirit (Zooey Deschanel). Later, we’ll see Adam (July 29), about an affair between a guy with Asperger’s syndrome (Hugh Dancy) and his open-minded neighbor (Rose Byrne), as well as Paper Heart (Aug. 7), with Michael Cera and the actress-comedian Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up).

In these films, love is messy and elusive — and hardly ever leads to rosy-cheeked rides into the sunset. ”These movies all have an ‘awkward’ romance at their core,” says Nancy Utley, president of Fox Searchlight, which is releasing both Adam and (500) Days. ”Not everything is glossy and perfect — just like in real life.” Case in point? Yi, who’s 23, had such doubts about the heart-melding she’d seen in movies that she co-wrote one about it: the quasi-documentary Paper Heart. ”I was kind of a skeptic about love,” she says. ”I’d seen so many relationships fall apart.” Yi plays a version of herself in Paper Heart, interviewing couples about romance and ultimately falling for a character played by Cera, her former real-life boyfriend. ”The movie’s about understanding why things work out, and when they don’t, wondering: Was that truly love?”

There will always be an appetite for traditional romantic comedies about opposites attracting — They meet! They montage! They marry! — because many audience members who are cynical about love go to the movies to escape, not to have their own worst fears confirmed. Witness The Proposal‘s $114 million haul. And the hunger to see earthshaking romances on screen is as ravenous as ever. Just look at Twilight — though some insist that franchise is subtler than it appears. ”Although Twilight has a reputation for being girly crack, it’s not,” says Chris Weitz, who directed the sequel, New Moon (Nov. 20). ”It actually deals with some quite deep and complex things — loss, depression, and yearning.”

This summer’s batch of comedies recalls the John Hughes flicks of the ’80s: Just sub in internal angst for class struggles. ”Growing up in the post-divorce-boom era, we’re more skeptical of [marriage],” says (500) Days director Marc Webb. ”Most romantic comedies sacrifice honesty for the sake of wish fulfillment. The theme of (500) Days is that happiness lies within, not in the big blue eyes in the cubicle down the hall.”

Michael Cera has already become something of an icon for this sort of romance — and you know times have changed when a jittery, soft-spoken beta male like him is the soul mate of choice. ”There’s an innocence to him that’s really sweet and endearing,” says Yi. ”It’s nice because most romantic comedies have, like, the Clark Gable, and Michael’s no Clark Gable.” The problem is that the nascent little genre hasn’t produced enough breakout hits like Juno to persuade the studios to truly rethink their ways. As a result, funny, complex romances are still a tough sell in Hollywood. ”Nobody wanted to make (500) Days of Summer,” says producer Mark Waters. ”All the things that make young audiences respond to it are exactly the same things that make a studio nervous.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Labrecque and Missy Schwartz