Sunday, August 9, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Challenging (but not quite topping) The Brothers Bloom as my favorite film of 2009 so far, Marc Webb's directorial debut was funny, endlessly charming, endearing, hopeful, and exciting. I can't recommend it highly enough. For me, this goes right up there with Wristcutters: A Love Story, Garden State, and Slumdog Millionaire.

(500) Days of Summer
Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

The term "chick flick" conjures images of Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl and Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts and John Cusack. Those films feature painfully formulaic plots involving the two love interests (who are generally complete opposites!) getting involved in some sort of conflict in which they must rely on each other to conquer, bringing them closer together and causing them to inevitably fall in love and go in for that omnipresent Chick Flick Money Shot (TM) - the slow motion kiss. Those films laugh in the face of realism and essentially feed the audience what they want with no alterations to the formula; they're the equivalent of the Jason Statham subgenre of action movie for guys.

The script for this movie was exceptional - turning what could have easily been another "chick flick" into something new and fun. First time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber implant characters from the chick flick genre into a realistic setting and treat the audience to how these characters react to potentially real situations. Some of you may be thinking: "Ben, if they're just doing real things then why isn't it a documentary? Who wants to watch stuff that happens in real life?" The screenwriters were fully aware of this issue - how do you craft a realistic script without boring the audience? The answer comes in a great fragmented timeline; the story constantly jumps back and forth among random times in the 500 days of this relationship and keeps the audience wondering what (and when) is going to happen next. Sounds gimmicky, but trust me - it doesn't feel that way when you're watching it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was brilliant. It's well known how much I appreciate his performance in Brick: this is vastly different but equally appreciated. He plays Tom, a greeting card writer who believes in the lofty notion of true love. Paired with a great script, Gordon-Levitt arguably shines brighter than any major actor working in Hollywood today; he delivers a performance that feels truly believable and invests just the right amount of emotion into his work to keep him in the realm of the realistic. Taking on projects like this one highlight JGL's passion for acting; he's becoming an indie icon, but doesn't turn down blockbusters like this summer's G.I. Joe when those opportunities present themselves. I can respect that.

Zooey Deschanel (also an indie star on the rise) was more than sufficient as Summer Finn, the object of Tom's affection who doesn't believe in love. Her character reminds me of Natalie Portman's in Garden State, but not as fun - Summer simply isn't written in the best light. She's a lovely girl to be sure, but her personality isn't very captivating. The film opens with the usually-saved-for-the-end-credits text "Any resemblance to individuals, living or dead, is purely coincidental." But then it adds, "Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch." We know from the first frame this isn't going to be a flattering story of the female in the relationship, since obviously the writers (and possibly director) have had experiences in their own lives similar to the ones that take place in the movie. Zooey happens to be on the giving end of these experiences, making her character less endearing to the male portion of the audience. Obviously I relate more to JGL's Tom due to the simple fact that I'm a male and can't understand Summer's motivations or justify her actions. Perhaps an intelligent female could offer some opinion of her movie-watching perspective in the comments.

Only just now did I realize that perhaps the reason Summer had such overt flaws was because we're told within the first few minutes that Tom and Summer break up, so the writers probably didn't want us making the same mistake Tom does and becoming too attached to her character. Despite Summer's lack of endearing qualities, she does possess a quiet charm and seeing the "good moments" in Summer and Tom's association gives brief glimpses into what Tom sees in her. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are magnetic, and their chemistry is undeniable. (They've since said they want to continue playing romantically opposite each other to try to become like the modern day Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.)

(Spoilers In Next Three Paragraphs.)

I was going to devote this section to an entirely different post, but I might as well include it here since this review is bordering on "mega-long" anyway. I want to make some quick observations about Tom. Obviously the guy is a little screwed up - his love for Summer causes him to be needy and instills in him the sense that he can "slay the beast" and change Summer's long-standing belief that true love doesn't exist. (Isn't that usually the woman's perspective with motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing "bad boys?" Insisting they'll be the one to finally change the guy?) But Tom is inexperienced in nearly every way, evidenced by his pep talk to himself in the mirror and the lopsidedness of the "past boyfriends" conversation (you know, the one with "Puma.") He instigates the "playing house" scene in IKEA because he knows nothing about how he's really supposed to act or what his role is in the grander scheme of things. Nothing is more evident of how infantile Tom's love life is than the fact that he gets love advice from his younger sister (the wonderful Chloe Moretz, from the upcoming Kick-Ass), a girl clearly more experienced in the ways of love than Tom himself, despite the obvious age difference. He's the child in the relationship, driven home to the audience by his gushing love speech for Summer over a montage of her features shifting to immaturity when pointing out negative things over the same montage post-break up.

I think the movie provides an interesting commentary on relationships mid-recession in 2009: the male, historically the provider and protector, has his world upended thanks to a devastating event (break up = loss of bank account, stock portfolios, etc). This event, most likely caused by the male, was unplanned and unintentional. He loses everything and his life is in disarray, but then realizes perhaps what he once thought of as "losing everything" was only the first necessary step towards a better life.

It's easy to reduce and equate Summer to a bank account metaphor, but does she deserve a closer look and a more fair assessment? I'm not sure. I won't feel bad saying this because you know you're in spoiler territory: She married (!) that other guy only weeks after her and Tom's relationship ended. Does that make her a skank/slut/tramp/(insert disparaging remark here)? Initially I immediately assumed the answer was yes. How could she do that to Tom? But in the penultimate scene when she confronts him on the bench, she tells Tom that she "woke up one morning and knew with her new guy what she never knew when she was with [Tom]." As heart-wrenching as that is to Tom's loyal fans (aka the male contingent of the crowd), maybe Summer has a point - perhaps Tom's undying belief in true love and his willingness to fight for it was the lesson she learned from their relationship. Summer's acquisition of his belief manifested itself in a new marriage; to complete the cyclical symbiosis of the relationship, Summer inspired Tom to get back into architecture, ultimately leading him to quit his job and meet the impossibly attractive Autumn (I smell sequel!) at the end of the movie. As the omniscient narrator seems to imply, "everything happens for a reason."

(End of Spoilers.)

Marc Webb, who was previously a commercial director, brings a fantastic sense of direction and originality of vision to this project. You can tell he loved the source material and poured his soul into making this movie. The creativity on display was inspiring and evoked part jealousy, part admiration, and 100% respect. This guy has big things in store for him if he goes down the right path, and I hope that path takes him to more scripts like this where he has the ability to add his personal touch to a fantastic story. Webb did a great job keeping everyone who worked on this movie (editors, choreographers, etc) on the same page with the tone he was trying to evoke, and it paid off in a big way. Something that should also be pointed out is how hard it must be to shoot LA in a different way than we're all used to seeing it. You know the drill - you get the vast cityscapes, the typical shot of the Hollywood sign, the winding hills with mansions looking down on it all. This movie was shot in LA, but the version of the city that was captured for this movie perfectly mirrors the film's tone - laid back, undiscovered, small, and comfortable.

(500) Days of Summer has so many little moments that just work - it's hard to explain it better than that. The dance number set to Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True" (which I won't ruin) was my favorite part of the film. I've had that song stuck in my head for two straight days now, and there's no sign it's going away any time soon. There is an excellently executed split screen featuring Tom's expectations of an event on one side and how it actually plays out on the other. But hey - if you've come this far and I haven't convinced you to see it yet, then I haven't done my job. If you HAVE already seen the movie and enjoyed the hipster soundtrack, check out this music video for She & Him's song "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" She & Him, of course, is the folk/indie/whatever band that Zooey Deschanel is in, and this video reunites the director of (500) Days of Summer with its two stars.

This is the type of smaller scale film that needs a decent turnout in the theaters to keep similar projects up and running so we aren't flooded with JUST big budget blockbusters, so I hope it does well in theaters. It's almost assuredly going to do some great business on DVD/Blu-ray, since (from what I can gather) people who dig this movie dig it hard. (500) Days of Summer has both personally won me over and momentarily restored my faith in movies as art. Do yourselves a favor and give this one a chance. Until next time...


Anonymous said...

i think you meant... a modern day spencer tracy and KATHARINE hepburn. :)

Jacob said...

I'll have to check this out. I have heard lots of good things. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been making a lot of critically praised movies lately. Have you seen The Lookout? Heard it was excellent.


Ben Pearson said...

Hah - right you are, Hepburn lover. My mistake has been corrected.

Ben Pearson said...

And yes, Jacob, I have seen The Lookout. I thought it was a bit underwhelming, but as usual Gordon-Levitt was excellent in it.

lavietoni said...

"She married (!) that other guy only weeks after her and Tom's relationship ended. Does that make her a skank/slut/tramp/(insert disparaging remark here)? Initially I immediately assumed the answer was yes."

Ahem, this statement has totally been on my mind for days. I haven't decided if I'll do my own counter review but...maybe.

lavietoni said...

PS...Just want to clarify that I know you changed your mind (once you were convinced her actions were acceptable and that they benefited Tom in some way).

But the way you expressed your initial disappointment in Summer's marriage probably wouldn't have been phrased (or received) in the same way if Summer and Tom's roles had been reversed! I can't imagine Tom being called a skank, particularly for getting married.

Also, what if Summer's marriage hadn't somehow led to positive changes in Tom's life? What if he hadn't embarked on a new career and met a beautiful new woman...what if he remained a broken-hearted greeting card writer? What if she never explained herself to Tom, or to you? Would she then still rightfully be regarded as a "skank/slut/tramp/(insert disparaging remark here)"? I mean at times I was disappointed in her actions too, because I wanted her and Tom to be together, but I felt sad without writing her off as a slut.

You know me. I can't *not* bring something like that up.

Ben Pearson said...

To All: as always, thanks for commenting. To Toni: I'll try to address your remarks.

First off, I realize that you're probably offended by my terms (skank/slut/tramp/insert disparaging remark here), or rather disappointed that I would use them. In hindsight, you're right: I definitely could (and should) have worded that section of the review more eloquently. But to slightly justify my writing, I'll point out that I left myself an "out" by making the term "insert disparaging remark here" so vague.

That specific term (for me, I can't vouch for my readers or anyone else who has seen the movie) was meant as a placeholder for descriptors that I just couldn't put into words at the time. The closest thing that I can think of now would be "bad person" (which would turn my original statement into assuming that Summer is a bad person because she married Random Dude). I just didn't see how her actions were socially acceptable in any context. I "immediately assumed the answer was yes" because my mind instantly jumped to thought of Summer's loyalty to Tom - I didn't believe there was any way she could have found a healthy relationship (and subsequent marriage) in such a small amount of time post-breakup.

But I definitely would have been just as disappointed in Tom if their roles had been reversed. Again, you're right - I don't think I would have called Tom a slut, but that's because (as you pointed out) guys don't have that stigma attached to them. I probably would have called him a man-whore or something, but I DEFINITELY would have made a big deal about how he made a total dick move by marrying a random chick so quickly after their marriage. That's really all I was trying to do with Summer - point out that she made a dick move.

I think the ending you describe where Tom doesn't find happiness and Summer doesn't explain herself to him (or me) would still have made me question whether Summer's actions were socially acceptable for the same reasons I listed above. Like it or not, this is Tom's movie, and the writers succeed in their attempts to make the audience empathize with him. This is the case in any movie - if you've grown attached to a main character (male or female) and they are mistreated in your eyes, you're going to automatically take their side in the battle.

I know you acknowledged my change of tune, but it's very important to note that I didn't simply "write her off as a slut" since within the next few sentences I (tried to) explain how I think they both learn something from their relationship and they both end up better off because of that knowledge. I (along with the rest of the audience) recognized Summer's role in Tom's life story as the movie comes to a close, and my harsh assumptions were mellowed out a bit by her explanation to Tom and his subsequent "moving on" with his life.

I hope that clears some things up for you - feel free to keep the comments coming and I'll do my best to answer as soon as I can.

lavietoni said...

Thanks for the response.

I think we're on the same page now. You're right that it's Tom's movie*, so it's understandable to empathize with him and it's not as easy to relate to Summer (I did think Tom's blind date was there to remind the audience pretty directly--"Hey remember, Summer WAS honest with him from the beginning, didn't lie, didn't take advantage, etc."). But anyway, I was responding more to the initial word choice, not the sentiment you just described. When you wrote "insert disparaging comment here" I was just imagining a continuation of the slut/tramp list (uh, whore?) but I see how that could also be an opening for a DIFFERENT word choice as well.

Thanks again for your response, I am never sure if I want to raise issues like this but I always feel better when a good conversation follows.

*...As a side note, maybe I'm also tired of being shown love stories (I know, "this is not a love story") where you really don't get see the female's perspective/inner-workings, and I'm not talking chick flicks. Where is Summer's story? This film makes me think of the theorist Simone de Beauvoir who said that: "...women's mystery is derived in large part from the absence of language in which to understand them...women exist only as they are conceived of by men; they have no existence in their own right."** I feel like with the indie pop culture world, there's a whole lot of emphasis on the ideal girl/woman being this kind of mythical, sometimes childlike, semi-mysterious figure. And the movies and songs are generally told from the man's perspective, they are usually Toms' stories, and for that reason everyone gets to side with the Toms and not the Summers. But alas, I haven't thought about this much so maybe I'm wrong, and of course, I'm not blaming you for this. Just my 99 cents. :)

**That's not a direct quote from de Beauvoir:

Ben Pearson said...

I suppose the "ideal girl" thing you mentioned (which is undoubtedly true) is an effect of the movie industry - writers, directors, etc. - being mostly comprised of males. It's inherently biased because of that.

I'm totally down with conversation at all times about (almost) any topic, so (one last time) thanks for reading and commenting.

Ashley said...

so I started to read the whole review- got to Zooey's intro- even though I haven't seen the movie... like I usually do... but this one is written so well and now I want to see the movie so bad that I stopped reading. I'm gonna see the movie 1st. just thought you should know.

Boze said...

I finally let Kara talk me into this and really dug it from the opening scene to the song playing over the end credits. Kara of course, fell asleep. The more I think about the movie the more I come up with wild tangential conclusions about "the message" of this movie. Every tangent though is right in its own sense, and that is what is so great about this movie. It is like a gateway drug to your mind.