Sunday, August 23, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Chloe Grace Moretz, Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly
Running Time: 95 Min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

"This is the story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing he'd never truly be happy until the day he met the one. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music, and a total misreading of the movie, The Graduate."

So begins the opening narration of the anti-romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, a movie that exposes some harsh truths and breaks a lot of rules we're not used to seeing broken in its genre. Starring two of the most talented young actors working today, I couldn't have guessed there would be so much to discuss when it's over that their onscreen pairing would be the LAST THING I'd feel like talking about. Forget about the film merely being worth the price of admission, I'd pay just to listen to two people have a conversation about it. When it's over it leaves you thinking hard and hits close to home with certain portions connecting more with some than others. That's to to be expected when its subject is the gradual disintegration of a relationship over the span of 500 days. The film's tag line reads: "This is NOT a love story." And in making that declaration it joins an exclusive club of movies frequently featuring an unlucky-at-love male protagonist struggling with relationships, often against the backdrop of a memorably hip soundtrack. Almost Famous, Say Anything, High Fidelity, Rushmore, Garden State, Annie Hall, and The Graduate all come to mind as examples of coming-of age dramas masquerading as romantic comedies. This is that...but in a way, it isn't. We have a main character who's extremely likable, but not not fully clued into reality, allowing himself to become the doormat for a cold, detached female antagonist. While couples will likely be arguing for hours as to who's really more at fault, the hilariously biting "dedication" that opens the picture indicates that the filmmakers are sure of their stance and at least have a wicked sense of humor about it.

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hopeless romantic whose job as a greeting card writer in Los Angeles couldn't possibly be a better fit since you get the impression he's the kind of person who actually believes the sentiments he's writing. But like many twenty-somethings, he feels as if he's just punching the clock. He went to school to become an architect but things didn't work out, as they sometimes don't. His entire world is turned upside-down when his boss' (Clark Gregg) new assistant, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) arrives on the scene from Michigan and within the first few seconds of seeing her, he instantly knows she's "THE ONE". And he doesn't think he has a chance. Sadly, he's proven right, just not in the way he expects. The movie makes no bones about the fact that this won't end well for him. After some initial awkward posturing, they kind of fall into a relationship, if you can even call it that, since he's far more emotionally invested in it than her. The cynical Summer is Tom's opposite. She doesn't believe in soul mates or even the very notion of love and let's Tom know this from the start. She just wants to have a good time. No strings attached. Nothing serious. No commitment. On the surface he seems fine with it, but of course he isn't.

The story isn't necessarily told as out of order as you've been lead to believe from the ads and commercials. It opens at the end of the relationship and through flashbacks we're given the chronology of events that lead to the break-up. A counter shows up letting us know where we are in the course of Tom's 500 days so it's mostly a pretty straightforward narrative. The device works because it enables us to see bits and pieces of their time together before finally putting together the entire puzzle of what went wrong. We only have a general idea of the ending but this enables us to discover along with Tom the "how" and the "why." It isn't just a gimmick. In a particularly clever sequence toward end of the film Tom describes in excruciating detail all of Summer's most notable traits. The qualities that represented beautiful perfection to him earlier morph into ugly, disgusting flaws as the relationship heads past the rescue point and we're predisposed to side with him, being that the story's told from his somewhat slanted perspective.

First-time director Marc Webb (working from an unusually observant script by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) employ many more devices (such as split screen, voice-overs, title cards, and musical numbers), none of which are groundbreaking, but feel like they are since we've rarely seen them utilized as brazenly in a romantic comedy since Annie Hall. The voice-over narration (provided by Richard McGonagle) recalls the detached objectivity underlining 2006's Little Children and though it's used more sparingly here, it's no less effective. Having first carved a niche for himself directing Regina Spektor music videos, Webb's playing favorites with the soundtrack selections, but it's understandable since few songs could fit the story as well (especially the brilliant use of Spektor's "Us" over the opening credits). Many have already complained that this is just another one of those "hipster" movies by the way the characters dress and the name-dropping of indie bands, most notably The Smiths. But the fact is many young people do dress like this and listen to that type of music. And some don't. Who cares? Regardless, these two did and I believed it. More importantly, it's actually key to the story, informing the decisions the protagonist makes.

Besides falling prey to mislabeling this as another quirky indie comedy, another misconception surrounding the film is that there's a gender reversal going on in the dynamic between the two (implicitly hinted at during a pivotal early scene), when it's actually our preconceived notions developed from watching other movies that's challenged. I'm willing to bet there are a lot more guys out there like Tom who do secretly want a commitment and are looking for "THE ONE," but just aren't allowed to show it. Similarly, there are probably just as many Summers who have no desire for a serious relationship and just searching for a good time. And, of course, the reverse is true as well. We've been weened on an unhealthy dose of dumb romantic comedies and stereotypical gender roles for so long that we've had it in our heads how male and female characters are supposed to behave. In that sense, this story re-invents the wheel by simply acknowledging our behavior can sometimes conflict with expectations.

The two leads share what you could almost call a negative chemistry with her being the vessel through which he channels his dreams and goals, attempting to make up for his own self-perceived shortcomings. He's doing all the work in the relationship and even during the good times you see how hard he tries to keep this thing afloat, a sure sign of trouble. It's almost exasperating to watch. He's not exactly in the "friend zone" but he isn't that far off and isn't even close to where he needs to be with her. In the biggest shocker for me, I actually had problems seeing what Tom saw in Summer, which is downright bizarre considering the insanely likable actress playing her. But maybe that's the point. Only Tom's supposed to see it. It's almost as if you took all of Zooey's characters from her previous movies and removed their soulfulness and sensitivity. Her usual quirkiness is dialed way down, as it needed to be for this part. Categorizing Summer as cold and detached isn't far off the mark. At one point she's labeled remarkably "average," but possessing an unmistakable aura that draws you in. And that isn't far off the mark either. In other words, she's an enigma of sorts, and the more we learn about her, the more complicated and inconsistent she seems. Obviously, the toughest part of the character to rationalize is that she isn't a bad person trying to hurt Tom, and that's easier to digest because of the protagonist's own insecurity issues. And the actress chosen to play her.

Casting Zooey Deschanel works on a couple of different levels, but mostly because many guys watching are guilty of holding the actress to same impossible ideal Tom holds Summer. At first, you think Zooey's stretching to play the role because it's so far from what she's done before. But is she? Chances are this character (flaws and all) comes closer to the real person playing her than any of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girls" her many male fans have assumed the actress must be like. Is it actually possible she isn't nearly as zany, flaky, quirky and extroverted as we suspected? That she was really a lot working harder than we thought in all her OTHER roles? This film presents that theory, and it's a good one, painting her previous work in a different light. While I can't go as far as to say she's "playing herself," there's probably more truth in that statement than obsessed Zooey admirers would ever want to believe or admit. Webb likely knew that and selected her as Summer because she'd sting the most. The director uses Zooey's most endearing qualities as a guided missile, aimed directly at the male audiences she's captivated throughout her career. Rarely is our perception of a character so influenced by our knowledge of the actress playing her.

What JGL projects perfectly as Tom is fake confidence. On the outside he seems to be well adjusted and have his act completely together, but on the inside turmoil brews. A pro at playing tortured characters in hard hitting dramas like Brick and The Lookout, Levitt is equally adept at doing the same in a looser way here, while also displaying the comedic chops we remember him having as a child actor. Tom doesn't act like a loser but thinks he's one and by holding Summer on an unattainable pedestal she becomes just as unattainable as he believes her to be, self-fulfilling his own negative prophecy. Of course the viewer can plainly see he's neurotic and wrong, so we wait anxiously for him to catch up to us, which doesn't occur until the final scenes, but by then it's too late (at least for him and Summer). When he punches a jerk hitting on her in the bar it's not to protect her honor as he convinces himself, but because this guy's cutting insult ("HE'S your boyfriend?"). brings his feelings of unworthiness to the surface. Hardly an act of chivalry, you'd see why she's not impressed.

Tom's wise-beyond-her-years 11 year-old little sister (played by a scene-stealing Chloe Grace Moretz) gives sound advice at just the right moments, which would be too cutesy if not for the ironic fact that she has a more realistic grasp on relationships than he does. It's an obvious gimmick, but still serving the themes of the story. When she informs him that just because he and Summer share the same bizarre interests it doesn't make her his soul mate, it's the kind of truthful observation likely to make a lot of guys watching cringe as uncomfortably as he does. His occupation is also key to the plot, as this is the rare film where workplace scenes are handled intelligently. Tom has a fair, understanding boss and cool co-workers willing to help him out. Plus, who wouldn't want to write greeting cards? Why he's unhappy at all, much less having a Jerry Maguire- like office meltdown in the third act (maybe the only scene that feels overly scripted) is clearer when considering it has nothing to do with what he's doing with his life, but what he isn't. Toiling away at a job he doesn't like while projecting his dream of becoming an architect (as well as all his other baggage) onto this one girl, who he hopes will solve all his problems. Ironically, she has just as much baggage, and has gone to the opposite extreme in closing herself off to feeling anything at all.

Summer isn't let off the hook, nor are female audiences approaching this as a date movie or "chick flick." If guys are predisposed to root for Tom because they can relate in some way, girls are equally likely to side with him after years of watching lesser romantic comedies telling them they should root for the geek, underdog, or "nice guy." This film dissects that myth, then blows it to bits. In the third act when Summer's actions arguably cross the line into pure selfishness (just enough, but not too much), it gives permission to females watching to abandon Summer's view and (falsely?) convince themselves they would never in a million years do what she did. You could argue all day and night whether she was engaged before inviting him to the party or it happened during it, and whether her invitation was cruelly insensitive or not, but the end result remains the same. That's why the most memorable character just might be someone we never even see or meet--Summer's mystery fiancee. It's a credit to the writing that even though we don't know his name, what he looks like or even the slightest thing about him, we can still try to guess, and ponder the troublesome possibility he could be someone similar to the guy Tom punched out in the bar.

Far from just gloom and doom, the film excels at capturing that initial feeling when you're first falling for someone and every emotion seems heightened. The morning after Tom beds Summer the funniest, most uplifting scene of the film comes in the form of a Hall & Oates musical number complete with an animated bluebird. Levitt makes the scene soar, making us want to reach through the screen and high-five Tom. There are moments in the movie you think (hope?) along with the protagonist that this could work, like their trip to Ikea where both at least seem to appear to be on the same page at the same time. But they weren't. As a memorable split-screen sequence in the film depicts, this entire situation revolved around EXPECTATIONS and REALITY, with the latter coldly winning out.

It's fitting in a movie that's as much about how we watch movies as it is about a failed relationship, that the key to this one centers around the ending of The Graduate, or rather Tom's "misreading" of it (at least as far as it's possible for someone to misinterpret an open-ended film). A one-sided, reductive reading is probably the better description, as Summer's tragic interpretation could just as easily be categorized as too extreme in the other direction. Yet another example of how the characters' attachment to pop culture isn't just there for window dressing, and in Tom's case, may unhealthily be influencing how he views life. It's the impetus for the break-up but I won't spoil the scene other than to say that nearly everyone will read it differently. And like The Graduate, how someone chooses to see it will probably say more about them than the film. Tom's ending is vaguely hopeful as the idea of fate is touched on, but unlike other movies in the genre, this one's more interested in exploring why people would believe in it than just merely acknowledging its possible existence. Summer may or may not have been "THE ONE" if there is such a thing but the closing minutes hint she probably entered his life as the catalyst for something bigger.

In somewhat of a breakthrough, the script doesn't take sides, presenting a free-thinking female lead who's an agent of action rather than a prize to be won. It acknowledges neither character is blameless, with Levitt and Deschanel's performances filling them with too much complexity for you to completely dislike either. Both have their issues, but at the same time actually seem real, making the same mistakes we would. He didn't get the message, while she was careless with his feelings, but the screenplay cleverly disallows us from viewing the film through the same one-sided prism Tom saw The Graduate. It isn't just about a failed relationship and there's a universality in recognizing that everyone's a "Tom" or a "Summer," or at least a combination of both.. That's not noteworthy until you consider this is supposed to be a romantic comedy. And how many of those ever provoke deep analysis or reveal life truths? Besides being a terrific coming-of age film that breaks formula, (500) Days of Summer also exposes how movies can reflect back at us whatever we want to see.

3 comments:

Dennis said...

can't say I'm shocked with your review/rating. I can't wait to check this one out.

SM said...

I loved this movie and it's true that it's one of those movies where you can have a conversation about it for hours because it's so complex. However, I think that in order to play Summer, Zooey had to be cold and unlikable. You kind of have to not like her in order to feel JGL's pain even more. For me, that made it more heartbreaking to watch and at the same time, a better movie for me. This also in my opinion proves Zooey to be a better actress, she can make you love her and hate her.

JD said...

I agree with every word you wrote here.
Deschanel's Summer is very cold.THe irony of the name is not lost on us.
Funny, her character's nickname in Gigantic is Happy and she is anything but happy on the inside in that film.
Deschanel and Levitt are playing against type in this film. That is wy it works so well.
Deschanel's Summer contradicts almost every song she has written for She And Him. Meanwhile Tom seems like SHe And Him is the soundtrack of his life.

I know I commented on other pages about this review, but it is the best one written about this film.