Wednesday, April 20, 2011

(500) Days of Summer Movie Review

First published at American Madness on 23 November 2009.
Reposted here without changes.

(500) Days of Summer rests solidly on the strengths of its charismatic leads Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, who play Tom Hansen and Summer Finn, co-workers at a greeting card company who find, and then lose, romance. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber and directed by Marc Webb (known primarily for music videos, but making his feature debut here), it is the perfect, and often honest, answer to the contrived and sappy romantic comedies we see produced far too often in Hollywood.

“This is not a love story,” we’re told at the outset by an omniscient narrator. Although a love story is most certainly what it is. The film begins with the recounting of the happy couple’s breakup. That line is designed to set us up for the fact that the couple will not get back together. Armed with the knowledge of what is ultimately to come on Day 280 (or something) of the titular 500, the story then jumps back to Day 1 and then soldiers on ahead depicting the burgeoning romance between Tom, the romantic who believes in love at first sight and soul mates, and Summer, who doesn’t believe in love (perhaps because she’s never experienced it) and refuses for several months to even admit she is his girlfriend.

The two leads have strong chemistry together and separately are quite strong, as well, even if Summer’s character is never fully developed in this story that is told predominantly from Tom’s perspective. But Zooey Deschanel has a hypnotic quality, capable of luring you in with sultry looks and a maturity often not found in many female actresses of her generation (Julia Stiles is one exception). Tom and Summer are lucky enough to live in a script that is quite well-written and funny and which continually thumbs its nose at the Hollywood films mentioned before. I particularly like the irony of having Tom, the romantic, working as a writer of sappy greeting cards whose messages are trite and impersonal. They are unfortunately surrounded by supporting characters that aren’t nearly as interesting as they are. The worst of these is Tom’s younger sister (Chloe Moretz) of about 11 years old who offers sage advice. It’s the one truly false note in an otherwise strong film.

As the film continues on it jumps back and forth between the development of the romance and the aftermath of the breakup. Eventually the first timeline catches up to the second. I like the design of the structure, but somewhere along the way things become a little confused. We’re always informed of the day number we’re watching but it requires that you remember on what day the breakup took place at the start to know where you are in the sequence of events.

The film suffers from the distraction of incessant use of stylistic techniques (split screen; surroundings that change to animation; a song and dance number in the middle of a public park). Some of these flourishes work and some are amusing. One in which Tom, in a moment of elevated confidence, looks at his reflection to see Harrison Ford as Han Solo winking back at him is a stroke of genius. They seem to be an attempt to give the film an indie hip vibe, but come across as artificial. They become tiresome after a while and threaten to sink the film.

Once you strip everything from the surface we’re left with a story that is not shallow, but not particularly profound or groundbreaking. It makes me wonder if Webb felt that the sstory wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own and therefore decided to use smoke and mirrors to obscure its shortcomings. The stylization too often feels forced and inorganic. They are entirely unnecessary touches of unconventionality tacked onto a story that is already somewhat unconventional in its telling and end result.

The story works well because we’re told the ending at the beginning, allowing us to enjoy the journey, seeing how Tom and Summer eventually arrive at their breakup. It succeeds because it’s painfully honest about love and never panders. We may hope for more from movie characters, but you will rarely learn more than you will from these two.

2 comments:

  1. I think the message is for both characters. I don't think Summer is a bad person, she just being blunt of what she wants and Tom in the end gets what he wanted too.

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  2. I don't think I implied she's a bad person. Clearly, however, the film is told from Tom's POV so there are inherent suggestions that she leads him on in the beginning and then, from his perspective, did him wrong.

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