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500 Days of Summer (2009)

500DIRECTOR: Marc Webb

CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Chloe Grace Moretz, Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly

REVIEW:

While it contains its share of romance, 500 Days of Summer is not a romantic comedy, at least not in the conventional sense.  As the narration informs us from the get-go, “this is not a love story”, and it acknowledges that every romance isn’t “happily ever after”.  Using a non-linear narrative structure, it’s a deconstruction of the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship that follows its protagonist, not always in chronological order, as he runs the gamut from exhilarated joy to crushing heartbreak, and all the little moments in between.  In a way, it’s not about the boy getting the girl, but the boy learning to get over the girl and living his life instead of desperately clinging to a relationship that may not have ever been as compatible as he thought it was.  That 500 Days of Summer manages to do all this without being a total downer is a tribute to the smart and witty screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the sophisticated and visually inventive direction by first-time filmmaker Marc Webb, and the charm of star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Despite the inherent bittersweet poignancy of the premise, this is–for the most part–a breezy, entertaining, enjoyable comedy-drama that manages in the end to be optimistic and life-affirming rather than bitter or depressing.  Among “breakup movies”, this is as “feel good” an example as you’re likely to find.

The titular 500 Days of Summer refer to the lifespan of the turbulent relationship between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel).  Tom, who dreams of being an architect but is resigned to an unsatisfying job writing greeting cards, is a hopeless romantic convinced happiness in life revolves around finding “The One”.  Summer, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in the concept of love and prefers independence to relationships.  Nonetheless, chemistry develops between them, and soon the lines are getting blurred between friendship and something more (though that “something” isn’t anything Summer is willing to put a label on).  Summer is upfront with Tom; she’s not looking for anything serious, and wants to keep it casual.  But Tom is convinced Summer is “The One” from the moment he claps eyes on her at his workplace, and soon he’s not only desperately in love with her, but fools himself into thinking she feels the same.  Ultimately, Tom is setting himself up for heartbreak, and his relationship with Summer might not ever be as compatible as his starry-eyed perception believes.

500 Days of Summer does a little playing around with the concept of the Unreliable Narrator.  While Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are equally-billed in the opening credits, Tom is the viewpoint character, and the relationship is seen through his less-than-objective perspective, with Summer kept at a distance and filtered through his first rose-colored, then bitter and resentful view of her.  That everything we’re seeing is not objective, and at least a fair amount of it is inside Tom’s head, is made obvious by a couple fantasy sequences, including one where Tom, exhilarated after spending the night with Summer for the first time, sees his reflection as Han Solo, and ends up leading a flash mob in an impromptu dance to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True”, including a marching band and animated birds that could have wandered in from a Disney cartoon.  There’s also a bit where Tom dozes off at the theater and imagines himself inserted into black-and-white French films (with amusing subtitles).  We also get a couple split-screen sequences with one side of the screen labeled “Expectations”, and the other “Reality”, where we see the difference between how Tom imagines his relationship with Summer and the less picture-perfect reality.  The movie being from the not necessarily 100% reliable perspective of Tom makes it a little hard to judge Summer.  While she warns him upfront that she’s not looking for anything serious, sometimes her actions and her words send mixed messages, and at times she comes across as flighty and selfish and oblivious or indifferent to his feelings, but we also see Tom’s own naive expectations, his obliviousness to the problems in he and Summer’s relationship, and gradually get the sense that, with his naive notions and limited actual romantic experience, it’s not so much the real person he’s in love with, but his idealized mental image of her as “The One” (it takes his 12-year-old sister to point this out to him).

500 Days of Summer does not follow a straightforward chronological narrative from beginning to end.  Rather, it skips forward or backwards to highlights of Tom and Summer’s relationship (ticked off on the screen as “Day 488”, “Day 8”, “Day 110”, etc.), contrasting exultant highs with aching lows.  This structure threatens to be a little fragmented and disorienting at first, but we quickly settle into the film’s rhythm.  It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Tom and Summer don’t live happily ever after, considering the movie reveals this itself within the first minutes, when we’re taken almost all the way to Day 500 before rewinding to Day 1.  With refreshing honesty, 500 Days of Summer gives us glimpses of the heady, giddy “honeymoon phase”, but goes where few romantic comedies dare to go and takes us far beyond it.  The movie also subverts gender cliches, with the man being the hopeless romantic and the girl the independent one who treats dating and sex more casually.  There are plenty of lighthearted, breezy moments, including the aforementioned flash mob routine, Tom singing drunken karaoke, and several witty dialogue exchanges, but this is less a comedy than a drama with comic moments.  The humor never resorts to cheap laughs or the juvenile behavior movies frequently ascribe to young characters.  Tom and Summer are immature in some ways, but they’re young adults capable of having intelligent conversations, and the movie treats its characters and their relationships with respect.  While the two movies’ plots are nothing alike, in some ways I was reminded of Perks of Being a Wallfloweranother low-key indie comedy-drama portraying young people with an uncommon emotional perceptiveness and insight, laudable traits all-too-rare in dumbed-down romantic comedies.  In addition to the aforementioned funny bits, there are also poignant moments, such as Tom getting an unpleasant surprise at a party, his bitter anti-love tirade late in the movie, and the final, bittersweet conversation between he and Summer.  Many viewers who remember the emotional rollercoaster of finding, losing, and moving past their first real love will feel the authenticity and insight of some moments here, and a movie that can feel emotionally truthful enough to stir real memories of real relationships in its viewers deserves some credit.

500-days-of-summer-couple-cute-joseph-gordon-levitt-Favim.com-576681The actors are well-chosen.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, at the time probably still best-known for his long-running teen role on the television sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun and a few low-profile indie movies, is perfectly cast as Tom, bringing a wealth of charm and likability and making Tom an immensely sympathetic and appealing protagonist even as we recognize his faults.  Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors who’s hard not to like, and he’s equally convincing in scenes of breezy humor or heartfelt vulnerability (in fact, in a way it’s ironic that Gordon-Levitt manages to make Tom as likable as he is, considering the actor himself has indicated in interviews that he considered his character selfish and unsympathetic).  If there was any lingering doubt that the former child star and TV actor was fully capable of carrying a movie or being a romantic leading man, there shouldn’t be any after this.  Zooey Deschanel is her usual sunny, quirky, slightly spacey self, and director Marc Webb and cinematographer Eric Steelberg clearly recognize that her most distinctive physical characteristic is her luminous eyes, which they highlight and film in close-up at every opportunity.  Deschanel is credited equal to Gordon-Levitt, but her role is really a supporting one; the entire movie is through Tom’s eyes, and we see Summer through his possibly distorted lenses.  Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are real-life longtime close friends, and their easy chemistry and companionability undoubtedly enhanced their onscreen dynamic.  The couply scenes between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in Tom and Summer’s happy moments are believable without feeling sappy or artificial.  Apart from them, Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler are Tom’s friends who provide sometimes amusing side commentary, and Clark Gregg (best-known these days as Agent Coulson in Marvel’s Avengers films), is Tom’s boss, but the biggest supporting impression comes from Chloe Grace Moretz as Tom’s little sister who serves as his soundest adviser.  In fact, the 12-year-old might be the most level-headed character in the movie.

As delightful and intelligent as it is, 500 Days of Summer is not perfect.  The split-screen Expectations Vs. Reality visual gimmick makes the “two” scenes a little hard to keep simultaneous track of; fortunately it’s not used often (although in its defense, it does lead into the moment that gives Tom and no doubt some viewers probably the movie’s biggest emotional kick in the teeth).  There are occasions when the running narration gets a little overly chatty (I prefer movies that let scenes speak for themselves), and also when Webb’s whimsy gets a little too cutesy and offbeat (the animated birds), though these occasions are few and far between.  But 500 Days of Summer does so much right that its minor quibbles feel like nitpicking.  It defies the romantic comedy formula to blow in a whiff of honesty.  Rather than falling to either extreme of sappy or depressing, it’s funny and heartfelt.  The couple scenes never feel artificial.  With so many formulaic cookie cutter romantic comedies churned out every year, something different and daring like 500 Days of Summer is all the more refreshing.  A low-profile indie flick on its release, it went on to become the sleeper hit of the summer, grossing 27 times its budget cost, receiving critical acclaim.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt received a Golden Globe nomination, and the film itself was also recognized with noms for Best Picture and Screenplay.  In any event, in whichever year it’s viewed in, 500 Days of Summer is a fresh, heartfelt, and delightful film experience.

* * * 1/2

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