A film review by Craig J. Koban September 1, 2009      

Rank:  #11

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER jjjj

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 Kelly

Directed by Marc Webb / Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

(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.  

Like 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.   

As 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!” 

As 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 battered. 

The 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.” 

The 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. 

Tom 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.   

Of 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 dejected.   

That’s 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. 

There 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.   

Two 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.

The 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.  

  H O M E