Tuesday, July 21, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

"The Splintered Arc of a Love Affair""
"Something as Permanent as a Greeting Card" ("Color My Life with the Chaos of Trouble")

Once in a blue moon a little movie comes along that takes you completely by surprise if you're walking in with low expectations and an objective demeanor. If "(500) Days of Summer" isn't the best movie of the summer season—now seemingly locked into alternating between "tent-pole" franchises and Film-Fest pick-ups, of which this is the latter—then it will do until something better comes along. And halfway through July that looks very unlikely.

The nice thing about "(500) Days" is that it's hard to classify—romance, comedy, drama, maybe "bromance," but not really—but what it is not is a "chick flick," as, here, the traditional roles in such a froth are reversed. Boy, Tom Hanson (
Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a "perfectly adequate greeting card writer" meets Girl, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), assistant to his boss (director Clark Gregg). Owing to what the narrator calls "The Summer Effect" that elicits "18.4 double-takes" on every bus-ride, Tom takes an immediate interest in her and begins a luring, enticing pursuit that to his shock and delight manages to hook the odd, off-putting Summer.

Then, the trouble begins, as it seemingly has before. Tom, you see, is a hopeless romantic—an oxymoron if ever there was one—while Summer doesn't believe in star-crossed romance, soul-mates, "Chasing Amy," or "hikes along the Appalachian Trail." She just wants to be happy, have fun and enjoy herself now, while she can.

This would be dreadful taken chronologically. But director Marc Webb and his scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who start off with a great touch) shake up the story and spill it out on the screen in a complex timeline that flies back and forth between good times and bad, reflecting the bi-polar extremes of Tom (which veer between music-video exuberance and plate-smashing depression) and the shifting moods of Summer (who runs hot and cold). The juxtapositions are great grist for comedy and the laughs are smart and plentiful. Throughout, Tom is advised by his small posse (Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler) and little sister (Chloe Moretz), all surprising in ways one doesn't expect.

It's the two leads that are exceptional. Zooey Deschanel is a fringe-actress roller-skating the edge of fame and one would hope that this was the role that gooses her career choices. Deschanel has always been good at the atypical waif,
but her Summer has a solid spine that makes her the leader in the dance. And Deschanel is just interesting to watch for her choices. During a party scene when asked, "What brought you here?" her brow furrows and her poached-egg eyes rattle through five fast and different expressions before she says anything, in sentences that are eerily elongated on certain words. And as the lovelorn Summer lover, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows a hither-to unseen range of ways to elicit comedy. If Tom is on a self-imposed short-leash, Gordon-Levitt is given a lot of rope to play with. It's a great, wise, funny performance that belies the actor's Keanu-like outer calm.

But it's the film-makers at play that finally wins you over—not just in the intricately shifting timeline that a second viewing will only confirm, but in one magical sequence that is so painfully honest and wonderfully cruel to romantic notions that you wonder why someone hasn't done it before. A sequence of Tom going to a party at Summer's split-screens to show his expectations of how the night should go alongside the brutal reality that sends him running into the night backed by an ironic pop-song (of which the film is full). It's a great idea carried off masterfully, as so much of this film is. But technique is one thing. What the film gets brutally right is the anticipation of love, the thrill of receiving it and the abject horror of losing it. And the film cracks wise about it at every step. As Tom says at one point (I believe it's Day 122), "Loneliness. It's underrated."

"(500) Days of Summer," however, is a Full-Price Ticket.


John said...

Not going to read your post yet... I'll wait until I see this film. But glad to see from the ranking that you're recommending it. This and "In the Loop" were looking like the only two decent films coming out right now.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I think you'll like this one a lot.

I'd be interested to know what O thinks of it. I suspect Diane wouldn't like it.

John said...

Oh yeah... I had completely forgotten that I'd seen this review and decided to wait on reading it.

I was about to try to counter everything you said, and give this movie the rigorous slamming that it deserves... but you are right about a few things in your review... and that made me reconsider. The scene when he goes to the party expecting to rekindle love is excellent. Before realizing that, I was prepared to say that the film falls flat whenever it tries to do anything serious... and only becomes bearable when it sticks to comedy. I still think the tirade at his work place was embarrassing.... and the ending was cheap and lame. And the wise little sister bit got tired. But the main character is charismatic and does find interesting ways to be funny. He's also pulling some of the same stunts that Sam Rockwell does in Moon. When the film jumps from Day 40 to Day 300 and then back again, his body language and vocal tones do bipolar backflips.

I guess my real beef with this movie is that I would have liked it when I was 22. And I sort of hate who I was when I was 22. Also, I'm no longer quite so impressed by platitudes like "Caring about architecture is cool, but greeting cards are really lame."

BTW, You were right: Diane strongly disliked it.

Yojimbo_5 said...

"I guess my real beef with this movie is that I would have liked it when I was 22. And I sort of hate who I was when I was 22."

This is not the movie's problem, bucky.

"Also, I'm no longer quite so impressed by platitudes like 'Caring about architecture is cool, but greeting cards are really lame.'"

The line was actually said ironically about why he left architecture: "...guess I just figured, why make something disposable like a building when you can make something that lasts forever, like a greeting card." yes it's ironic in the "we decided to get a divorce, because a trip to Tahiti is temporary but a divorce is something you always have.." kind of way. But also--deep down--the cluelessly romantic Tom believes something of that, based on his mis-reading of "The Graduate."

The movie doesn't deserve a righteous slamming. Not at all.

"Wise little sister" wasn't wise. She just wasn't an idiot in love.

"He's also pulling some of the same stunts that Sam Rockwell does in Moon. When the film jumps from Day 40 to Day 300 and then back again, his body language and vocal tones do bipolar backflips."

That's called "acting in continuity" in the trade. Sam Rockwell didn't create it.

The tirade at the work-place is embarrassing. It's supposed to be. (But "Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Fuck you, Whore" IS funny) Just like the bad blind-date is heartless. The guy is hopelessly, cluelessly in love.

And I knew Diane would dislike it because she disliked "Garden State" due to Natalie Portman's character. It would stand to reason she would dislike "500 Days of Summer." 500DOS is also fairly misogynistic in a caring, understanding bone-headed way.

Maybe you should switch to stage-plays.

John said...

I will abstain from rebutting or clarifying what I meant... but for a couple small things:

When I said the work place scene was "embarrassing" I didn't mean in the intentional way... when you're meant to empathize with an awkward moment for the characters on screen. I meant that I was embarrassed for the writer/director team because I think they failed to accomplish what they were trying to do.

And all the stuff about being 22 and platitudes is really my round-about way of saying this film is immature. It wallows in a kind of idealism that I don't think merits this much attention.

Yojimbo_5 said...

It doesn't wallow in that kind of idealism. It makes fun of it.

It is, after all, a comedy. You empathize with the protagonist at your peril.

It was meant to be awkward, not to mention cruel and thoughtless and short-sighted. I can't imagine how anyone could take that sort of behavior seriously, except that the chartacter is desperately self-absorbed and delusional.

In other words, a romantic.

Look, this is a very unromantic movie and if you're seeing it as such, you're reading it wrong. Gordon-Levitt's character doesn't question "The Graduate" (and, in fact, "misreads" it). That's why he is where he is. It may be romantic, but it's shallow...and for Deschanel's character it's undependable and not "safe."

Which was the whole problem with the relationship, but he never, ever realizes it.

Until she tells him.

It's a comedy, dude.