A film review by Craig J. Koban September 1, 2009
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER
2009, PG-13, 95 mins.
2009, PG-13, 95 mins.
Tom: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Summer: Zooey Deschanel / McKenzie:
Geoffrey Arend / Rachel: Chloe Grace Moretz / Paul Matthew: Gray
Gubler / Vance: Clark Gregg / Alis: Rachel Boston / Girl: Minka
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER is a sublimely inventive and delightfully infectious romantic comedy, and one that deserves worthy comparisons to benchmark genre films like ANNIE HALL for how effectively it captures the romantic milieu of its time.
Woody Allen’s lauded and Oscar accredited 1977 film, (500) DAYS OF
SUMMER provocatively and deliciously turns a stale genre upside down on
its tedious head: It
certainly has the requisite stock elements of what makes most rom-coms
click: Two charming and attractive leads; the obligatory “meet-cute”
between the two polar opposites, and then the trajectory of their budding
love – warts and all. Yet, what (500) DAYS OF SUMMER does better than just about
any other recent rom-com is that…well…it does not profess to be
for people that love rom-coms in general.
For fans of the genre hoping for a carefree and easy going love story
on highly digestible autopilot, you will certainly find (500) DAYS OF
SUMMER to be a highly acidic pill to swallow.
for the rest of us – like yours truly – that have been
desperately yearning for more out of this increasingly stale and
repetitive genre – let’s all jump from our theatre seats and scream a
joyous and collective “Oh, hells yeah!”
the film’s somewhat ominous voiceover narration offers us during its
opening, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER is “a story of boy meets girl.
But you should know up front. This is not a love story.”
Blunt and too the point, indeed.
Instead, the film harbors a calculating fascination for all of the
avenues of “love” and relationships that so many other witless
rom-coms never have time for. We have all sat through all of those cookie-cutter,
dime-a-proverbial-dozen varieties, which seem to operate under the strict
adherence to every single cliché in the genre field guide.
You know…the meet-cute, the giddy mutual infatuation, compulsory
musical interludes ripe with euphoric pop tunes, the cheaply contrived
misunderstandings, the even deeper and more annoyingly perfunctory
break-up that follow said mix-up, and then finally the mandatory pre-end
credit kiss and make up. Now,
to be fair, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER follows some of these rom-com character
traits, but its fiendish and brazen novelty comes primarily from the fact
that it dives into all of the nasty, dark, and dreary areas in-between all
of those mentioned. More
crucially, it keenly understands that most reality-based romances do not
neatly and conveniently follow a Hollywood trajectory of happiness
followed by wedding bells. (500)
DAYS OF SUMMER is sly and perceptive enough to acknowledge that love is an
extreme sport where people oftentimes get emotionally bruised and
masterstroke of the film is in its focus: It acts almost like a mosaic of
the fractured memories that men have regarding the women their think are
“the one.” I place strict
emphasis on the words men and think, seeing as the film is
staunchly told from an often warped and filtered male prerogative and
often reflects what they believe to be the one and only love of
their lives. Being a man, I
can attest to the fact that there are certain days where we remember the
long lost “loves” of our lives as perfect embodiments of all we hoped
for in a dream woman…buuuut…then there are other days where the things
we remembered so fondly are what we now despise about the woman.
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER intuitively understands the duplicitous and
fractured nature of the wounded male ego better that most films: At one
point in the film that main male character – at the apex of his
adoration for a particular woman – states, “I love her teeth.
I love the way she smacks her lips.
I love her knobby knees. I
love her heart-shaped mole on her neck.”
Later, when the adulation has morphed into something drearier,
those comments change to, “I hate her teeth.
I hate the way she smacks her lips.
I hate her knobby knees.
I hate the cockroach splotch on her neck.”
film’s narrative is as playful and artful with its chronology as PULP
FICTION was as it merrily flirts with time shifts, tonal focus,
and linearity (much like memories, I gather).
As the film’s title more-than-obviously hints at, (500) DAYS OF
SUMMER deals with 500 days of an on-again/off-again romance between
Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel, owner of the most
bewitching and intoxicatingly beautiful eyes in the movies).
The script jumps back and forth in time to give us glimpses of
particular incidents during the relationship in question; at first, many
of those snippets seem unrelated and lack cohesion, but as the film
unpeels and the more we bare witness to the romance the more we begin to
put the jigsaw-like pieces of the story together to create a more
meaningful whole. What’s
interesting is that we see – very abruptly and early on in the film –
that this romance is a doomed one and the film thusly becomes an
intriguing series of scenarios that delves into how things went from good
to better and then abruptly to horrible for Tom and Summer.
is the type of normal, hopeful idealist that hopes for a good career and
a nice woman to be by his side. Those
ideals fall a bit short for him in the sense that he slums away writing
for a greeting card company when he really yearns to be an architect.
On the woman-front he sees an exit from the doldrums of his tedious
occupation in the form of Summer, a secretary from his office, and it is
certainly love at first sight for him.
He is utterly convinced of the ideal of love at first
sight and steadfastly adheres to the notion that this will be the
woman he will die with. Contrastingly,
Summer is not a naïve romantic like Tom; rather, she is a cynical realist
when she reveals to him that she does not believe in love and
relationships in general. However,
even she will not deny that she does not have feelings for Tom when sparks
begin to fly between the two.
chief importance is that Tom is insistent that Summer is the one
and that she really is falling for him as hard and as fast as he is for
her. That’s the delusional
arc of the film, which may or may not have something to do with the
fact that Tom – as revealed in one of the film’s humorous asides –
was raised on sappy British pop tunes and a dreadfully incorrect
interpretation of the ending of THE GRADUATE.
The reality arc of the film is that Summer is not as
positive and sure of her commitment and feelings towards Tom.
She likes him, but as to whether she loves him enough to call him a
soul mate? Meh. What makes
this situation all the more heartrending, tragic, and more than a bit
frustrating is when Summer tries to distance herself away from the
infatuated Tom, which leaves him feeling bewildered and hopelessly
the real coup de grace of (500) DAYS OF SUMMER: While it's oftentimes a
sweet, hilarious, and invigorating rom-com, it nonetheless dissects the essence
of so many failed relationships (In short: how disillusioned men become
when their expectations of a woman are at stark odds with reality).
A considerable amount of rom-coms are often democratic when it
comes to focus (both the male and female characters are given equal
weight), but in (500) DAYS OF SUMMER the focus is chiefly on the man, and
often his collective thoughts and memories of Summer are widely divergent.
At times, he wondrously recalls all of her virtues in loving
detail, but at other times demonizes her to the point of overkill.
As a result of the film’s ostensive spotlight on Tom’s
splintered mindset, Summer emerges as a curiously enigmatic figure.
That is not to say that she is not a fully realized, flesh and
blood presence with real feelings, but her emotional state is shown
through Tom’s fuzzy viewfinder.
is – alas – a considerate amount of merry joviality in (500) DAYS OF
SUMMER (being a rom-com, it still is very funny), but the laughs come via
a fresher and smarter manner. The
director, Marc Webb (a former music video maestro, making his feature film
debut) shows a colorful exuberance and
creative hubris that’s altogether unexpected.
I appreciated how Tom’s emotional state – at one point in the
tale – is reinforced in a cheeky recreation of the works of Fellini.
Even more wildly uproarious and vivacious is a wild and fancy free
dance sequence that reflects Tom first overnight rendezvous with Summer,
complete with a spontaneous breakout of choreographed moves involving Tom
and complete strangers, animated blue birds flying into frame, and the
blissful and festive lyrics of Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams
Come True.” I love it when filmmakers through caution to the wind and
just…go with imaginative instincts.
other scenes in particular – much more dreary, depressing, and pragmatic
– are unreservedly brilliant: The
first involves a spat between Tom and Summer after he has been beaten up
at a bar after a drunken goon made attempts on her.
To the shocked Tom, Summer is angry at his choice of
actions. He can’t believe
that Summer would chastise him for defending her honor, but the reality
of the situation is that he acted more out of defending his own battered
male self-esteem. The other
scene in question ingeniously cuts to the heart of the film’s tone:
Before it we see Tom prepping for what he thinks will be a triumphant get-together with Summer (whom has been, by this
point in the film, somewhat estranged form him), but the film then offers
up two sets of possibilities for outcomes, presented in a simple,
but endlessly compelling, split screen comparison.
On one side is Tom’s Hollywood rom-com ideal of what he expects
his night with Summer will be and on the other side of the screen –
presented simultaneously to the other – is what actually occurs
during the evening. The
result is one of the most disquietingly sad and honestly observed scenes
I’ve seen all year.
Of course, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER would fall largely short if it did not come complete with Grade-A chemistry between its two main leads, and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel do a bravura job of making their relationship – even if it is through the filter of Tom’s perception – feel tangible and real at every moment. Levitt, when permitted, has emerged as one of the best young actors of his generation (performances in BRICK, THE LOOKOUT, and STOP-LOSS attest to this, even if his abortive and embarrassing turn in G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA still lingers within you) and he has the tough job of playing a lovable everyman that is not altogether lovable throughout the film. Sometimes, we can appreciate his shy earnestness and kindness (we want him to be happy), but at other times he can be an disagreeable grump that lets his delusions of love cloud his common sense (there are times when the film begs us not to like this guy). As for Summer herself, there is perhaps no more unattainably adorable screen presence than Deschanel to inhabit Tom’s sketchy ideal of the perfect woman. Her task is perhaps the film’s trickiest: She has to convey a fiercely independent and grounded female character with real thoughts and beliefs while, at the same time, coming across as a mysterious and impenetrable figure of contradictions to Tom. No matter, because the glowing Deschanel is unendingly appealing here: you just want to reach out and hug her.
film perhaps runs out of a bit of creative steam in its final moment,
which ends on a doubly ironic, but perhaps a bit too cutesy, moment for
Tom. However, that’s a minor nitpick for a romantic
comedy that has achieved the Herculean by reminding viewers of the
transformative power of the genre when its films once felt explorative and
unique. The modern rom-com - aside from a very few recent examples
– has needed a dosage of revitalizing fresh air, and (500) DAYS OF
SUMMER is just that sort of effervescent, intimate, harshly honest, and
wonderfully pioneering rom-com that I have been wanting for a long time.
It is one of those ethereally enjoyable and enchanting films that
is so difficult to classify, other than to say that it is one to discover,
rejoice in, and rush out into the streets and tell all of your friends
about. Best of all, (500)
DAYS OF SUMMER has the flavor of a movie that always feels truly explorative:
Even when the film bounces from Day 22 to 405 to 55 and then inevitably
to, yes, 500, it always feels like it's taking you on a journey with its
characters where the ultimate outcome feels uncertain.
That’s something that almost all modern rom-coms have dreadfully
lacked, and that’s why (500) DAYS OF SUMMER is one of the summer’s,
and 2009’s – most original efforts.