(500) Days of Summer (United States, 2009)July 15, 2009
(500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy for those who don't often like romantic comedies. Or, to put it another way, it's for those who appreciate the emotions but are unenthusiastic about the clichés and formulas that contribute to the cookie-cutter results. For his feature debut, director Marc Webb does so much right that it seems almost mean-spirited to point out the few, minor foibles (most notably, an occasional tendency to be too cute and offbeat). The screenplay is smart and witty, the leads exhibit Grade A chemistry, and the story unspools in a fresh, unforced manner. We aren't damned to endure tired gross-out gags or unfunny pratfalls. The comedy - and there are some funny moments - evolves naturally out of the characters and their situations. For a first effort, this is an assured and sophisticated endeavor and it leaves one interested to experience what Webb may have waiting in the wings.
The film chronicles the 500 days encompassing the romance between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). It is presented in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth in time to group like incidents from different points in the relationship (there's a counter that helps to keep things straight by telling us what day it is). We know early in the proceedings (when we're taken nearly to day 500) that things are not going to end with a happily-ever-after chapter, but the fascination comes from seeing how things will evolve from the early days of fresh promise to the bitterness that inspires the bitingly funny "disclaimer" from the beginning of the movie. (The one that ends with "Bitch.")
Tom is a hopeless romantic and, on the day he first sees Summer at his workplace, he's convinced that she's "The One." Summer, on the other hand, is a pragmatist, who not only doesn't believe in love at first sight, but isn't sure about the whole concept of "love" at all. Still, she likes Tom and wants them to be friends, perhaps even with benefits. They laugh, flirt, and hang out, and eventually take things a step further. Despite Summer's firm stance that she's not looking for anything serious, Tom harbors delusions that she's falling head-over-heels for him. He's on Cloud Nine until the differences between "Expectations" and "Reality" (as represented by a split-screen) dampen his ardor. One line uttered by Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally is a perfect refrain for Tom at this moment.
(500) Days of Summer calls to mind two Woody Allen classic romantic comedies: Annie Hall and Manhattan. Those films recognized something that few romantic comedies acknowledge: not all romances, no matter how delicious and delirious the "Honeymoon phase" may be, end with wedding bells. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is far better looking (and infinitely less neurotic) than Woody Allen, but there are parallels to the story arcs. I was also reminded of the French film He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which relies on perception skewing reality. That concept is in play here. (500) Days of Summer is told from Tom's viewpoint and no attempt at objectivity is made. The Summer seen in this movie is filtered through Tom's perspective. She is, by turns, idealized and demonized, depending on how Tom sees her at any given moment. Webb gives us glimpses of the "real" character, but they are fleeting. It would be interesting (although ultimately redundant) to see the story told from Summer's point-of-view.
Webb indulges certain whimsical impulses throughout the movie. There are faux old movie recreations that place Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in the action, the aforementioned split-screen that balances Tom's fantasy with the less optimistic reality, and a satirical song-and-dance number set to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True." More than any other moment, this illustrates how deeply the story is embedded in Tom's mind, and that he is not the most reliable of narrators. It's a breezy sequence, complete with animated birds, but one that is critical to putting the movie in its proper perspective. We are not objective voyeurs of Tom and Summer's interactions; we're gazing through his eyes.
The casting is perfect. Webb has chosen leads who are familiar but not overexposed, and who are on equal footing (neither overshadows the other). The last thing we need is another romantic comedy with Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, or Jennifer Aniston. Gordon-Levitt, best known for his recurring role in the TV series 3rd Rock as well as a number of lower-profile feature films, has the perfect quality of likeability necessary to get us on Tom's side. Deschanel, appearing in her third consecutive romantic comedy (following Yes Man and Gigantic) is her usual sunny, slightly goofy self. She plays the kind of irresistible woman that any man of Tom's limited romantic experience would fall for hard. Deschanel's part is a little more difficult than Gordon-Levitt's, since she's not so much portraying a character as she is playing someone's vision of that character. Because of the way Summer is presented, it's difficult to achieve a continuity of personality with her. The two leads have a playful chemistry that's just about right for a PG-13 romantic comedy.
Webb and his cinematographer, Eric Steelberg, recognize that Deschanel's defining physical characteristic is her eyes, and they make sure to highlight them at every possible opportunity. There are numerous close-ups; I can't recall another recent motion picture that has focused so strongly on one particular attribute of an actor's face. (IMDb even asserts that "The film's blue-centric color scheme was done to bring out Zooey Deschanel's eyes.")
With romantic comedies, too often the constraints of the formula rob the movie of integrity. When something comes along like (500) Days of Summer, a willingness to deviate from the template allows the film to seem more honest and unusual than should perhaps be the case. Another departure from the norm is the script's decision to present the fantasy of romantic longing from a male perspective without an inordinate amount of sex and sophomoric behavior (differentiating it from Judd Apatow's endeavors). Webb treats his characters and his audience with respect. The result is something worth savoring regardless of the season in which it is seen.
(500) Days of Summer (United States, 2009)
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight