Movie Review: (500) Days Of Summer

(500) Days Of Summer
Directed Marc Webb
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Chloe Moretz
Rated PG-13
Release date: July 17, 2009

“She’s gone. She gave me a pen. I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.”
–Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything

“If I had a personal conversation with God, I would ask him to create this girl.”
–Steve Dunne from Singles

“People don’t realize this, but loneliness is underrated.”
— Tom Hansen from 500 Days Of Summer

(500) Days Of Summer: The Architecture Of Expectations And Reality

Happy endings are for massage parlors. Reality is a stranger in most recent romantic comedies. This was not always the case, but in good and bad times, the masses demand that their characters live happily ever after. No one wants to pay ten dollars to hear that life sucks and you do not receive all the assets that come with the American Dream. Is there even an American Dream anymore, regardless of the accessories that may come with it? We do not get the romantic comedies we want, but the ones we deserve.

More recently, audiences have been blessed with three very honest films this year that have been sold as comedies, but work on a far deeper and subtler level: Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, Sam Mendes’ Away We Go, and now Marc Webb‘s (500) Days Of Summer. Each of these films work as honest cinema that delivers a gut punch of epic proportions. All of the films work on a comic level, but each delivers a level of brutal honesty which is greatly appreciated by the time the closing credits start to roll. These films never preach or condescend to its audience. Instead, the films speak to us in ways we never thought possible. In harsh economic times, the last thing most people want to see is some structure of reality staring at them from the other side of screen. At the end of the day, it is the realistic film that will stay with you far longer than the far fetched fantasy film. Leaving your brain at the door does not have to be an option. Actually, as I have gotten older, I appreciate having to think about what I am watching.

(500) Days Of Summer casts a wicked and addicting spell as the film invites us into its company with each frame. Taglines are tricky beasts for the most part. In the case of (500) Days Of Summer, the tagline is right on the money: “This is not a love story. This is a story about love.”

The film’s omniscient narrator states this from the outset as well. As with Todd Field’s Little Children, this type of narration only heightens the film’s intensity and is rarely intrusive. It is one of the most honest films about love in a very long time. Is it as good as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything or Singles? I am not sure just yet, but (500) Days Of Summer certainly deserves to mentioned in the same breath as these films. Every generation deserves its great love story; (500) Days Of Summer certainly does not dumb down the material into cookie cutter fodder as dictated by worthless focus groups. Marc Webb certainly creates a vivid and aspiring film from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber‘s screenplay. If Adventureland is the finest coming of age film since The Graduate, then surely (500) Days Of Summer is one of the finest and smartest romantic comedies since Say Anything. If anything Marc Webb refuses to talk down to the audience just as Woody Allen and Cameron Crowe did with their best films. I feel we are watching the rebirth of honest and intensely emotional films. (500) Days Of Summer is very honest, it never drowns in a sea of emo-laden depression. The film has downers, but that is to be expected given the subject matter, but the film never strangles us in such a way as to make us long for a Prozac cocktail.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s Tom Hansen is looking for “the One.” He will never be truly happy until he finds that one girl for him. There is one slight problem; the girl has to believe that Tom is the one for her as well. It seems that Tom greatly misread The Graduate when he watched it at a young age. Tom went to school to become an architect, but he writes greeting cards at a company in Los Angeles — there is a sick and twisted joke in here about being a greeting card writer in Los Angeles. The great irony is that maybe Tom should be working at a greeting card company. He is an unrepentant romantic at heart because he believes in soul mates, true love and other hallmarks of the mythology of falling in love. Still, he seems to be wasting away in this job when he should be pursuing his true passion — he is in the classic twenty something job rut. On the flip side of this coin is Zooey Deschanel‘s Summer Finn. Summer comes to work as the new personal assistant to the company’s boss, Vance (Clark Gregg). Needless to say, Tom takes a notice of her. She does not believe in these notions of romantic love. While Tom so desperately thinks her to be the woman of his dreams, she lets him know from the outset that she is not looking for anything serious or any kind of commitment. Yet, these two work so well together, have such dynamic chemistry onscreen, that we like, Tom, want to believe that these two will get together and stay together. The film has a scrambled chronology. The days are shuffled like a mix tape. We see the end toward the beginning. In many ways the film is a detective story — why didn’t this romance/friendship work out? If Todd Phillips’ The Hangover is the Reservoir Dogs meets Memento of bachelor party films, then (500) Days Of Summer is the Memento meets Say Anything of romantic comedies. The film is a mystery because it does come as a shock to us that things do not work out between them. The fractured narrative makes it all the more arresting. The film is a series of uppers and downers. If anything the structure keeps us alert.

The film would not work nearly as well if it was not for the likability of the two leads. It is impossible to categorize Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Many people like to say that Sean Penn is his generation’s Marlon Brando, but is it not fair to say that Sean Penn is simply Sean Penn? I cannot think of another actor that Joseph Gordon-Levitt reminds me of at the moment. The choices speak for themselves: Manic, Mysterious Skin, Brick, The Lookout, Stop-Loss, Killshot, Havoc, and Shadowboxer. Even in something that is not as good as it should be like Killshot, he still has enough screen presence to make us want to watch it. And while his acting choices have been diverse and rewarding, one has to wonder what he going to do as Cobra Commander in the forthcoming G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. What makes (500) Days Of Summer even more worthwhile is that this is a reunion for him and Zooey Deschanel. They both worked together in Manic in 2001. As Summer Finn, this is the first role in a while where a director has known what to do with Ms. Deschanel. She left a lasting impression as Noel in All The Real Girls. She helped make Eulogy and Winter Passing worthwhile. She was divinely irresistible in Elf. She stole everyone else’s thunder in Failure To Launch. As Ms. Edmunds, she was the coolest teacher who ever lived in Bridge To Terabihtia. She was wasted in Yes Man and she could not even save The Happening from being utterly moronic. Each scene between her and Gordon-Levitt radiates magical chemistry. To put it in Tom’s words, they seem “perfectly adequate” together. Whether it is the scene in the elevator where she compliments him on his taste in music regarding The Smiths blasting from his earphones, a fun crazed outing at Ikea or walking through the city streets of Los Angeles, they just seem right together. Of course, we know the sad truth from the outset as the relationship has gone off the rails more than halfway though the 500 days. When he goes to relay what went wrong to his all too wise younger sister, Rachel, played by scene stealing Chloe Grace Moretz, we get the feeling that this has happened before, but not to such a severe degree. He does not want to get over Summer; he wants to get her back. At times it is painstaking to watch because we never get the feeling that Summer thinks he is “the one” for her. Perhaps that is why she is crying as they exit a screening of The Graduate, her future may not be with Tom Hansen. In another scene at a bar, she is hounded by a thuggish buffoon who wants to buy her a drink. He cannot believe she is with someone like Tom. Her behavior during this incident and afterwards says a lot. She does not point out she is with Tom. Tom punches the guy and then the thug punches him back. She is not thrilled with everything that has gone down. For every high, there is a low with this couple. Yet, Tom is given signs that she might be letting her guard down. In one beautiful scene, she goes to hold his hand as they are walking through Ikea. It is the image I want to hold onto as I remember this wonderful film.

Marc Webb is a very accomplished music video director. As a debut feature film, (500) Days Of Summer works well on a variety of levels. One of the films astonishing feats is the treatment of the city of Los Angeles. The city has not looked this real and alive in a long time. The Los Angeles of (500) Days Of Summer looks like a real city. This realism has invaded a lot of recent films that have taken advantage of this wonderful, lonely and demented city. Alex Holdridge’s In Search Of A Midnight Kiss made the city look new and exciting by shooting the film in black and white. Gregor Jordan’s The Informers was able to capture the Eighties’ Los Angeles of plastic elegance while Mark Neveldine and Brain Taylor’s Crank: High Voltage took advantage of the city’s underbelly to make the wildest action film in many years. The Los Angeles of Joe Wright’s The Soloist and John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man seem authentic as well. As Summer Finn’s states in the film, they live in the most beautiful city in the world and while some may dispute that statement, there is no denying the city’s beauty as shown through Eric Steelberg’s cinematography. The film made me a little homesick and I did not even live there that long. Another thing I loved about the film being set in Los Angeles is that none of the characters in the film were attached to the entertainment industry. I found this very refreshing.

(500) Days Of Summer has a brutal honesty and frankness going on throughout it. It joins Away We Go and Adventureland as films that give you so much more than you expected. I also feel that Zach Braff’s Garden State and Jeffrey Blitz’s Rocket Science did a good job addressing coming of age and romantic issues, but not quite as powerful as these three films. Greg Mottola’s Adventureland was a beautiful coming of age portrait in the late 1980’s that hit all the right notes. It was more drama than comedy. There was a level of intense honesty in the film that made me think that is how it was really was during that time. Jesse Eisenberg’s James Brennan gets a dead end summer job at an amusement park that turns out to be the greatest education he could ever hope to have. Sam Mendes’ Away We Go provides another honest look at relationships and trying to figure life out. Maya Rudolph’s Verona and John Krasinski’s Burt are a loving couple who about to have a baby. Burt wants to marry Verona, but she does not believe in the institution. They travel the country looking for a place to make a home around friends that are married. What they find is that everyone who is married is just as messed up as they are. It is one of the most honest films that Sam Mendes has ever made. It is a bleak view of marriage, but never the suicidal bleakness of his previous film, Revolutionary Road. It is possibly the most accomplished film that Sam Mendes has ever directed. The characters in (500) Days Of Summer, Away We Go, and Adventureland are looking for some kind of happiness. Yet, there really is no storybook happy ending. These films are about growing up. Whether it is the twenty somethings of Adventureland and (500) Days Of Summer or the thirty somethings of Away We Go, we never stop growing. When we stop growing, we stop learning, when we stop growing, we start to die inside. Tom’s friends in the film played by Matthew Gray Gubler and Geoffrey Arend serve as great contrasts to him. Their friendships reminded me of the friendships in Tony Goldwyn’s The Last Kiss which was a remake of Gabriele Muccino’s L’ultimo bacio. The Last Kiss was a mature look at relationships despite the film’s flaws.

“They made a statue of us” is the opening lyric of Regina Spektor’s “Us” which plays during the opening credits of film as we see home movies from the two main characters. Her music adds to the film’s seductive power. Her song is the perfect anthem to the film. Not only her songs, but the use of The Smiths’ music is done very well. The film’s musical number to Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams” features Tom as he dances and sings his way through Los Angeles after his first night with Summer. It is a delightful and charming interlude. This represents the strength of the film; Marc Webb does everything just right. For every upper in this film, there is a downer. A scene which shows a split screen with one side being expectations and other being reality could be a whole metaphor for the film. Tom’s expectations can never match up to the reality. This is where the honest power of the film gets it intensity. Tom’s 500 days of Summer is no different than James Brennan’s unexpected education in Adventureland. He has to learn some life lessons and grow. May we all have had or have our own 500 days of Summer because the ending shows that all his romantic notions are not wrong. Hope is on the horizon.

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