Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer


It’s one of the hardest things in life. You’re in love with someone and everything seems to be going fine and then you find out that that someone doesn’t feel the same way about you. Am I speaking from experience? I’ll let you guess. Whatever the case, Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer realistically addresses that scenario with a vibrant style and a light sense of humor by following the days of Tom Hansen’s relationship Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) – the girl of his dreams – or so he thinks. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a romantic who believes strongly in fate – that there’s a special someone waiting for him. Summer, however, is more cynical about those issues and makes it clear from the beginning that she’d just like to enjoy the moment, have fun, and not complicate the relationship with serious commitments.


The film’s most clever device is not following the days of Tom and Summer’s relationship chronologically. The numerical counter that precedes many scenes might indicate a day at the sad ending of the relationship. Then the film jumps to earlier scenes. We are able to see where this twosome is going and what points clearly indicate the road to breakup, and the contrasts between earlier and later days provide much humor. We’ve seen plenty of films that cover the fateful meeting, the gradual falling in love, the passionate moments, the frictions, the breakup, the painful aftermath, but spreading out the scenes non-chronologically puts a fresh face on a hackneyed genre.

Other devices make (500) Days of Summer a fun film to watch. When Tom starts to feel like he’s losing Summer, he sees himself in various heavy foreign films – one reminiscent of Jules and Jim, another in imitation of The Seventh Seal. In bright contrast, after Tom has made love to Summer for the first time, he walks down the street and ends up in a sappy musical production number, complete with marching band and animated bird. After Tom breaks up with Summer, and she invites him to a party, we see him climbing the stairway to the apartment in split screen: one side is “expectations” and the other side is “reality.” When we see his romantic wishful thinking juxtaposed with images of the sad, hurtful truth, the result is touchingly realistic. In addition, when we learn that Tom saw The Graduate at a young age and misinterpreted the ending, taking it to mean that we are all destined to meet that right person for us, footage from the final scene plays an integral part in showing that perhaps Tom and Summer see life too differently to be together, and Simon & Garfunkel’s poignant "Bookends" accompanies a montage of flashbacks that juxtaposes moments of cheerful togetherness with moments of doubtful division. In fact, that montage is a simple concept that is brilliantly employed.

As for the performances of Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt, whatever it is that they do makes them very convincing as individuals, and very realistic as a couple, and we can more easily identify with their characters than if they had been played by glamorous, big-name performers. Gordon-Levitt convincingly displays his love for Summer, and we’ve seen plenty of montages following the brokenhearted lover, but Gordon-Levitt always makes it fun. I like when he goes to the liquor store in this bathrobe to buy snack cakes and whiskey and then shuffles down the sidewalk, expressing his bitterness to a passing couple. Meanwhile, gorgeous eyes are all that Deschanel needs to show us what attracts Tom to Summer, but she is also excellent at letting us see what she holds back from the relationship even while she seems to be enjoying it.

Although the film is chiefly light in tone, Tom learns a hard lesson. He sees how he misinterpreted Summer’s character and misread the signals she gave him, though, at times, he is somewhat misled as well. Perhaps the film should have ended before the hopeful scene in which he meets someone else. Is she the person meant for him? The scene seems fabricated to end the story on a happy note but possibly an ambiguity is intended. In the same way the final shots of Ben and Elaine in The Graduate suggest doubt, perhaps this scene suggests that Tom might once again fall in love with someone who doesn’t feel the same way about him. Tom might be one of those passionate romantics who need to have their hearts crushed repeatedly before they learn to be more careful. Am I speaking from experience? I’ll let you guess.

14 comments:

FilmDr said...

Nice review. I wish that (500) Days of Summer was playing somewhere around here. I've admired Gordon-Levitt's work in Brick and The Lookout, so I'm curious to see how he handles more romantic fare. It's also good to see Deschanel get away from dreck like The Yes Man for the time being.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, FilmDr. Yes, Gordon-Levitt was great in Brick. Though he doesn't seem the usual type to be cast in a romantic comedy, he does a great job here. As for Deschanel, don't forget get dreck like The Happening. I'm not a big fan of hers, but she is perfect here.

Not playing around where you live? And I always think I'm behind the releases living on Cape Cod. I had to go up to Cambridge to see The Hurt Locker. As for this one, luckily it was selected to play at the single-screen Cape Cinema - otherwise, I'd be out of luck.

Fletch said...

A lot of Tom's personality and experiences hit home for me as well, enhancing the film for me. Certain scenes felt like looking directly into the past.

Glad this made its way to you!

Hokahey said...

Fletch - Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel did a fine job of making the story univeral. A similar story starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie might have been more distancing. The uses of The Graduate and the Simon @ Garfunkel music were definitely nostalgic - in a story that definitely seems set in the present.

Craig said...

I was a little afraid in the beginning this would be too winky-ironic, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. It conveys Tom's internal state while also knowing when to get some distance from that perspective. A very fun film.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Craig. I agree. It came at a good time for me. I was becoming very discouraged with this year at the movies, and I felt that this was a fun, well-made, well-acted film.

Craig said...

I also have to say kudos for singling out the use of "Bookends," a canny choice of music for a number of reasons. (The soundtrack is excellent.) And for alluding to Gordon-Levitt's "Get a room!" line at the couple merely holding hands.

Like you, I initially interpreted the ending to validate the concept of Fate. Now I'm not so sure. Tom certainly enters this new relationship more confident, experienced and wiser, but dating somebody you could beat out for a job (or lose one to) has its perils. I think the great joke about her name (which I wouldn't dream of giving away) and the fact that the counter starts back at "1," simply means that he's ready to try again.

Hokahey said...

Right - her name! Good thinking. Autumn - and he has to run through at least a couple of more cycles before he reaches "spring." Now I'm more convinced that the ending is ambiguous - which I like. As I said, it irritated me when I first thought the writer was trying to show us that Tom was all right now. Thanks for the additional thoughts.

MovieMan0283 said...

The movie didn't really work for me, though I admired its aim more than I thought it would going in. It kind of seemed to be knocking down a lot of those Garden State-type "indie" stereotypes, which is certainly a worthy cause though ultimately it doesn't really seem to go far enough with it...and it was still a little too much in the superficial vein for the subversion to work, I think.

But yeah, everyone else seems to like it much more than I did so take that with a grain of salt...

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the thought. I can see what you're saying about the film not going far enough in its endeavor to knock down indie stereotypes. (It has one of its own in the couple bonding over music - just like the married guy and Juno in Juno.) Nevertheless, I liked the film's structure and acting, and I found it to be a satisfying experience. Besides, it's not a competitive year; there's not that much out there to like.

MovieMan0283 said...

Hokahey, I've noticed that this movie has been far more well-received than I would have expected, on a pretty broad basis (besides my own, I think I've read one other largely negative review); I think my expectations have been kept high given that I don't go to theaters too often and tend to watch movies I can already reasonably expect to be quite good.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I understand how repeat visits to the multiplex can make one appreciate a relatively satisfying, relatively sophisticated film in the midst of all the crap. I mean, I'm mentally comparing the film to Annie Hall when others are - much more reasonably, I might add - comparing it to your more typical rom-com.

Ultimately, I have (as described on the other thread) a strong antipathy to the very style of contemporary mainstream filmmaking - the shallowness, the shorthand, the smugness - and I tend not to take it for granted so I call a film out on it when it's there. Which is fair enough, but may also not be keeping things in perspective.

At any rate, these things always shift. I think (500) Days in some ways is a harbinger of its own genre/movement/maybe even aesthetic's demise. It seems a little lost at the end, as if it now realizes quirk culture has nothing left but isn't sure where to go next. True, there are plenty of reasons for the trends towards one-dimensionality and shorthand to continue, but there's also plenty of impetus for a brewing reaction.

Hokahey said...

I'm not surprised that this film has been well-received. It's upbeat and tender-hearted but intelligent.

I'm with you in deploring "the shallowness, the shorthand, the smugness" of many contemporary films, but I hold hope for the future. Things swing back and forth. Films that make an attempt to be well-developed and intelligent are getting more recognition.

I love movies on the big screen too much to stay home. I don't mind a diverting Hollywood movie that's somewhat shallow though I always prefer more intelligent, artistic films. But, like I say, I keep hoping, and I keep looking.

Daniel Getahun said...

"Tom might be one of those passionate romantics who need to have their hearts crushed repeatedly before they learn to be more careful."

Yes, we agree on this point, because I don't think the first time did the job for him.

On a separate point, the numerical counter really annoyed me to no end. I have no problem with the disjointed structure and I like the idea of looking at the relationship within a given time period, but the way that played out and sounded with that loud register just grated on me.

I was even reminded of The Hurt Locker, in that these counting of days on screen is really just a not-that-clever set-up for the final shot (here, the #1).

Hokahey said...

Daniel, thanks for the observations. I didn't mind the clicking counter in Summer but the tally of days remaining in Locker failed to produce any suspense. For the most part, I don't like titles telling what day it is or how many days are left. I like that to be worked into the dialogue or images.