Posted by: jamesodinwade | October 13, 2009

Review: 500 Days Of Summer (2009)

“This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

Director: Marc Webb

Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

Rating:

There is nothing inherently bad about romantic comedies or romance films in general, but I believe it’s often true that they are bad for us. John Cusack asked in High Fidelity whether he listened to pop music because he was depressed or if he was depressed because he listened to pop music. 500 Days Of Summer dwells similarly on our constructed romantic fantasies, how they define the way we live and what can happen when they clash with reality.

Tom Hansen (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt) is the kind of person who has internalized every mopey Smiths song ever made and believes he will never be happy until he meets “the one”. Enter Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), the Ringo Starr-loving pixie dream girl he’s been waiting his whole life to meet. But hang on. As we already know this isn’t a love story. Summer likes Tom, maybe even loves him, but she can’t promise that she will feel the same way the following week or even the following morning. Tom reluctantly agrees to follow this relationship because he’s in love with her and soon enough, as we know from the first scene Summer is over.

500 Days is an incredibly admirable film in several ways. It imitates the whimsical style and mood of the typical “quirky” romantic comedy while simultaneously questioning and subverting it. There is a sequence early in the film (and the relationship) where we see little memories of Summer and we hear Tom, lost in euphoria, gushing over her little eccentricities he’s fallen in love with. It’s pretty sappy and while I admit I liked it I did so in spite of myself. I was happily surprised to discover the film was more self-aware than I gave it credit for, when later in the film Tom, now crushed, recalls the exact same moments, now with a bitter tirade as narration. This little gimmick does a lot to show how in movies and even in life we see things the way we want to see them and not so much as they are.

As the film exposes our cultural myths about romance by slowly crushing Tom (the definition of a hopeless romantic) it also says a lot about representations of women. There have been a slew of movies in the past few years featuring a love interest in the form of the “pixie dream girl”; that beautiful, spontaneous, free-spirited girl who eventually is won over by our often hapless leading man. Director Marc Webb acknowledges that this is indeed a paper-thin male fantasy and chooses to tell this story from the point of view of a man who believes in it completely. The problem is that Summer is a real person and the same free-spirited attributes that make her so irresistible to Tom keep him from ever really possessing her the way he so desperately wants to. Zooey Deschanel is a perfect choice to re-examine this archetype as she is herself the quintessential indie pin-up girl and has even played the “pixie” frequently before (I recall last year’s wretched Yes Man).  So yeah, JGL and Deschanel: awesome.

It isn’t all pop-culture critique however. Despite being an emotionally painful film at times, overall it is a ridiculously fun movie to watch. The film jumps around ecstatically to various days in the titular 500 allowing us to put the narrative together like a puzzle as well as easily letting us see hints of the end of the relationship in the beginning. There are great non-sequitur cuts, whimsical montages and a fantastic musical sequence complete with full choreography and animated birds. I have a feeling that the “sketch” effects that have become synonymous with “cute indie films” will annoy the more cynical of viewers, but here they are used sparingly and are thematically consistent with Tom’s architectural aspirations. Even the many pop culture references, which normally do not accomplish much and attempt to achieve things the filmmaker didn’t earn are very well used. The references (apart from making the characters seem “cool”) are in fact fleeting glances at the mindset of each character and good hints towards where the film is going. My only real complaint is that while using the template of the “quirky” romantic comedy the filmmakers inadvertently fall into some of its cliches. Tom’s friends especially are nothing more than a distraction from what is interesting about the film and how many times do we have to endure the “you need to get over it, man” scenes?

In the opening narration we are told that Tom’s ideas about love stemmed partially from a total misreading of the end of the film The Graduate. This was an endearing detail as, when I was younger I too completely misinterpreted the ending as a love-conquers-all victory of a final scene. I recall lending the dvd to a friend of mine I was deeply smitten with and after watching it she told me she was very troubled by the ending and my dumb explanation of “the triumph of love” did little to negate her darker interpretation. Years later, and after watching 500 Days Of Summer I think I understand why I didn’t understand The Graduate and maybe also why that relationship never materialized.

-James

Great Moment: Joseph Gordon-Levitt belts out the Pixies’ Here Comes Your Man at a karaoke bar.

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