(500) Days of Summer Review
2009 is surely the year where shared taste in music sealed the deal for hot, young celluloid couples. Whereas the credits rolled before we could discover if Nick and Norah's mutual love of indie led them to a quickie chapel wedding and five fat children, (500) Days of Summer unsurprisingly showcases a longer timeframe. It's a timeframe that begins when greeting card writer Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) encounters his boss's new assistant Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) at work; he's listening to the Smiths on his headphones, she compliments his taste in music, love blossoms. Or does it? Tom is a hopeless romantic who believes in fate, yet Summer is a realist who isn't sure if she believes in love. Uh-oh. As the film's poster and omnipresent narrator are quick to remind us: 'This is not a love story.' Nope, instead it's sort of like Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, only none of the good times or bad times are erased so we, the audience, can see how this 'non-love story' pans out...
Despite its subversions of the steadfast male/female roles, the plot is still slight enough that one might doubt it could result in a great film. Where (500) succeeds is in its execution, taking that subverted central relationship and building a bittersweet tale that pulls the rug from an audience expecting certain criteria from their date movies. The film sets its offbeat tone from the start by establishing its non-linear Memento-style pattern, allowing us to flit between the burgeoning days of the relationship and its final death throes, all the time signalled by cue cards that allow the audience to place each date within the overall scope of the 500-day jigsaw. The device, if mishandled, could have instantly sunk the picture yet director Marc Webb works it to the film's advantage, always keeping the audience on their toes and constructing some clever transitions.
Perhaps another reason why the fragmentary approach never annoys is the fact that, despite its complex structure, the film feels uncluttered; indeed, it is largely a two-hander between the impressive leads. Gordon-Levitt makes good on the promise shown in Mysterious Skin, Brick and The Lookout with this elevation to mainstream 'leading man' status, only strengthening my opinion that he could so easily be the natural successor to the much-missed Heath Ledger. An early breakup scene shows the inevitable pitfalls of Tom's 'fools rush in' approach, and yet we're rooting for his big-hearted romantic from, you guessed it, Day 1 despite the forewarning that this isn't going to be a happy ending. Levitt evokes sympathy even when a post-split Tom wallows in grief and unleashes bitter tirades against colleagues and strangers on the street, and it's this ability to get the audience on board that is so integral to a film that shows events from Tom's perspective. In fact, the implication is that the memories being cast on screen are themselves manipulated by Tom's rose-tinted view of the past, as evidenced during a scene when a chance encounter on a train is cast in the golden hues of a fast-approaching sunset. A pining Tom's optimism is eventually shattered in a fabulous split-screen segment that pits Expectation against Reality, and has the mundane yet heartbreaking consequences of Reality emerging as victor.
Although Levitt gets more mileage out of Tom's wounded underdog than he has any right to, the film's real ace card is in its casting of Zooey Deschanel. She's provided kook on-tap in everything from The Good Girl to TV's Weeds, although recent lead female roles in the rubbish likes of Yes Man and The Happening could easily have consigned her to 'wisecracking best friend' parts. Thank God for the role of Summer then, one that cries out for her unique brand of aloof charm and which her talents fit perfectly (we even get to hear her cute-as-a-button voice during an amusing karaoke setup). One of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's wisest script choices is their refusal to make Summer the villain, a route that a lesser actress may have struggled to travel but which Deschanel clearly relishes, somehow managing to keep the audience on side no matter what ill feeling a spurned Tom may inspire in us. Witness the final scene between the two, a fraught exchange on a park bench that sees Tom asking the burning questions that have been festering since their last encounter; we should be hating Summer, and yet the writing and Deschanel's unshowy, honest performance make our hearts ache as much for her as our main protagonist and elevates this above the nauseating farce of recent rom-coms by providing no easy 'outs' or ribbon-tied denouements. This is how it happens in Real Life, kids.
In declining to take the signposted route, the film's emotional resonance packs a significant enough whallop but one that doesn't detract from the comedic quirks of the journey. Displaying more caustic humour in 90 minutes than in the last 10 Sandra Bullock vehicles, the script delights in witty exchanges between our loved-up duo and has fun in turning something as mundane as a trip to Ikea into an ecstatic adventure. Especially funny are a series of surreal vignettes that substantiate when a dateless Tom visits the cinema. Even a shoehorned-in song-and-dance routine which follows Tom's first horizontal boogie with Summer - and weirdly brings to mind Clerks 2's Jackson 5 interval - does not feel trite, as Tom's post-coital euphoria contrasts perfectly with his later deep depression.
Although it dances its own peculiar dance very well, a couple of (500)'s moves are out of step. Although they provide a sounding board for Tom's fluxuating emotional state, Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler's best friends are sketches of characters and no better than the gal-pal cliches that litter the pedestrian romantic comedies that this so easily betters. Even worse is Tom's little sister (Chloe Moretz), an advice-dispensing wise-ass teen who just doesn't ring true. Meanwhile, Tom's reluctant but overdue steps into becoming the architect he's always wanted to be, while perfectly reasonable, already feel a little contrived before a 'coincidental' final scene make them feel like convenient set-up. And what's going on with the narrator? You forget about him for half an hour, and suddenly there his booming voice is again playing out the action - maybe this is meant to convey Tom's awkward reproduction of his memories and his lack of smooth storytelling skills?
For a film that frequently evades the expectations of its genre though, the above are only minor quibbles. (500) Days of Summer is a date movie not afraid to ask awkward questions, providing a rounded and believable representation of a year-and-a-half long relationship and yet still bringing the funny for those who want an enjoyable Saturday night at the flicks. It's not quite up there with last year's criminally overlooked In Search of a Midnight Kiss but, given the 'competition', this is easily 2009's best - and most stylish - attempt at melding laughs with relationship drama.