Aug 12 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. While we meant to get to this one a lot sooner, we are finally able to give you our review of (500) Days of Summer. This movie is currently in theaters, so this review might be more relevant and you should jump on it fast if you haven’t seen it yet.

(500) Days of Summer
Year: 2009
Dir.: Marc Webb
Written by: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Starring: Joesph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel
Genre: Comedy

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

There are some movies that you walk into knowing you are going to love. They’ve got actors your fond of, the trailers indicate a style that fits with your taste, and the subject matter is within one of your favorite themes or topics. For me, (500) Days of Summer, is one of those movies. I’ll admit that I’ve had a crush on Zooey Deschanel for years and years, since I saw the indie black comedy Eulogy. The fact that this movie treats her with the same reverence that I often foolishly do didn’t hurt it in becoming a target of such anticipation for me, but that is not the only reason I was so excited for it. For one, I think Joseph Gorden Levitt is actually quite underrated as an actor, and after seeing him portray some range in Brick I was excited to see him take on another leading role. Secondarily, as some of my favorite films are comedic but dense takes on relationships (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, High Fidelity), this film seemed to be firmly within my wheel house. The visual style also appeared to be fresh and enjoyable and the trailer featured a brilliant scene of Levitt falling in love at first sight in an elevator that had me completely sold.

And I wasn’t wrong.

This movie was delightful for many reasons, but I’ll start with the script. Almost all of the events depicted are at least partially true, and are mostly autobiographical of the screenwriter. The authentic of the depiction of a relationship from start to finish is almost unparalleled. It even is able to play on this reality vs. fiction with one of the most brilliant opening jokes I’ve ever seen on screen, of which I will refrain from spoiling for you. The structure of the script is equally creative, as it jumps around in time to various points in the relationship of Joesph Gorden Levitt’s character Tom, who’s madly in love with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who doesn’t believe in love. While jumping around in time is nothing new to film, it’s rarely done so rapidly, and to such great effect. By doing so the writer is able to juxtapose similar moments so that you can see the small differences that prove to be of great importance, or comparing moments that are completely different and finding some brilliant insight in their comparison. Much like someone who is actually looking back on their relationship, we see a mix of the good and the bad in a scattered and unorganized way (though really the writer has everything completely under his control).

The directing style is also fantastic. There are several key moments which I’ll do my best to be vague about that are completely unique and immensely enjoyable. A musical number and a split-screen sequence are of particular note. Both these scenes are done in a very stylized way, but it also serves the characters and story flawlessly. It would’ve been nice though for more consistency throughout the film. While these moments are certainly enjoyable, they would’ve felt more natural if there were more of them throughout so they didn’t feel like a departure from the general reality of the film. The same can be said for the narrator. While the narrator is an incredibly well done touch, and sets just the right tone for the film, I do wish that it didn’t disappear for such long stretches of time so that it wouldn’t feel so abrupt when it returned. The solution to these things would’ve been to either have more or less of these moments, but it’s a small gripe amongst the mostly brilliantly executed aspects of the film. The acting is all enjoyable as well, Zooey Deschanel is her usual adorable self, and she displays her beautiful singing voice as well. Joseph Gorden Levitt is particularly charming and funny here too. The other actors don’t feel very important as it really swirls around their relationship, but when they are featured the character actors do quite well and get some good laughs.

I think what draws me to this movie the most though are the themes. In particular the idea that pop culture in its various forms severely affects the way we look at love, and the way we expect it to be when we enter relationships ourselves. This is something so prevalent with my generation, and particularly myself, that I can’t help but eat it up when I see it depicted, and would someday like to tackle it myself in my own creative exploits. This is probably the central subject of the film when it comes down to it, and it is delved into thoroughly and excellently, and resolved in a way that is quite satisfied. But the way it looks at relationships as a whole is also to be greatly commended. While the story in its entirety may seem actually quite pedestrian when you analyze it, it’s the small moments in this film that have the true brilliance of authenticity, and therefore universality.

(500) Days of Summer, who’s parenthetical title is meant to be a play on the common use of parentheses in pop song titles, is one of my favorite films of the first half of the year. It’s theater release has been widening, and I strongly recommend seeking it out so that you can see it in theaters. I’ve heard it compared to many other films about relationships, and while they are valid, I’ll try and refrain from making any more of them because this film is in fact completely unique and fresh and it has something to say. A number of things to say, and a few of them are some very strong truths about the human condition.

Benn says:

It’s not uncommon for romantic films to flourish in the summertime. Already, we have seen films like The Proposal, The Ugly Truth drawing in the masses, and The Time Travelers Wife and Adam are set to release towards the end of the season with similar success. (500) Days of Summer, on the other hand, takes a different approach on the romantic comedy genre in that it is not really a romantic comedy. “This is not a love story,” the film’s narrator begins, “This is a story about love”. Although it would be easy to roll one’s eyes at this seemingly pretentious tagline, the film offers the most realistic portrayal of a relationship as a whole; from introduction to dating to breaking-up to lamentation and, finally, to resolution.

(500) Days of Summer tells the story of hopeless romantic Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who falls in love with fellow co-worker Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Summer is pretty, smart, unique…and not looking for anything particularly serious at the moment. Despite this minor detail, Tom and Summer embark on a kind of no-strings-attached, labelless relationship that both are happy to be in. Eventually, Summer breaks things of with Tom, and Tom is thrown into a world of despair and heartache trying to find a way to live in a world without Summer.

If this sounds conventional or cheesy to you, you would be right, but something about Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber’s script and Marc Webb’s direction makes this film as scathingly honest as you can get. (500) Days of Summer doesn’t want to just show you two people getting together, nor is it satisfied with giving us countless scenes of people looking sadly out of a rainy window listening to Tegan and Sara. This has all been done before, and those films often miss the big picture of love and human relationships. Instead, Webb presents us with a film that dictates every aspect of a relationship; the ups and the downs, the laughter and the tears, and the bliss with the misery.

Gordon-Levitt, the film’s star, is perfectly cast as the film’s protagonist; Tom is sensitive, but he is by no means pathetic or weak or naïve. In short, Tom is the down-to-earth guy that every girl knows and who most guys tend to be, and Gordon-Levitt does a fantastic job of acting as naturally as possible, allowing him to be relatable for the audience. Starry-eyed Deschanel is cute as a button as Summer, and does well portraying the intriguing “one who got away” who entrances the audience while keeping us at arms length, not unlike her interactions with Tom.

The method of storytelling is the film’s best feature, and is responsible for enriching each scene and line of dialogue with deeper meaning. The film actually begins just a few hours after Tom is dumped by Summer, and continues going back and forth from the beginnings, middles and ends of the relationship, then back to Tom coping with Summer’s departure and getting his life back together. Each piece of information we get from one point of Tom’s life gives a crucial, and often humorous, piece of context that provides the next to the next. By eliminating the guess work behind the couples future and giving us the various consequences and outcomes of Tom’s actions before the actions are seen themselves, every scene is enriched with irony, appreciation and foreboding heartbreak that allows the audience to truly appreciate every bit of importance in the scene, from body language, to dialogue to a particular event.

What makes this film stand out from all the other romance and break-up films out there is how “(500) Days” stays away from overly-scripted, manufactured drama or lovey-dovey fantasy most films in this vein possess. In a world where labels are avoided, solid commitments are questionable and the term “It’s Complicated” is becoming more and more common on Facebook pages, the younger generations entrenched in the world of dating can understand Tom’s plight, and some may even understand Summer’s more distant, esoteric motives. Tom’s idealistic, romantic nature and beliefs are, for one, foolish, since these qualities are seen aplenty in poetry, pop songs and romantic movies often starring Cary Grant. However, those same qualities are also refreshing because, not only are they portrayed with a sense of balance, but they are not something particularly seen in the pragmatic, impersonal world dating tends to be.

Many relationship-based movies often focus on one single aspect of a relationship. Few have attempted to capture the entire scope of one from beginning to end, and fewer than that have done it with so much insight and honesty contained in (500) Days of Summer. Rather than relying on gimmicks or star power, (500) Days” approaches the subject of love and loss with true sincerity, unafraid to show the more vulnerable elements of romance and heartbreak, yet steers clear of melodrama, choosing to simply show what relationships are: beginnings, middles and ends. There aren’t many people who won’t be able to relate to Tom, and maybe a few who can relate to Summer, which is why so many have been and have yet to be truly touched by, and identify with, the film.

Ben’s rebuttal:

I would agree that this is probably one of the best films of the year, and I look forward to seeing what success it will achieve in award shows to come.  I like how James brought up the connection to pop culture and how it affects people’s sensibilities and expectations of love, as it is an important theme that is directly addressed in the film’s second act.  I would seriously doubt that James is the only person to  closely relate to Tom’s struggle with love and relationships in today’s generation.

James’ rebuttal:

It’s interesting that you brought up all those traditional romantic comedies in your introduction because I was thinking about all the ways this film takes tropes from that type of film, and turns it on its head.  In particular, a moment in a coffee shop where they really convince you that Tom may have an epiphanic moment, and then turn it around and show you he most certainly did not, and reveal another aspect of his personality with regards to his relationship with Summer.  There are many more moments like this, in fact they sometimes point them out themselves, as they do with the split screen scene.  It basically does a great job of turning the idea of the romantic comedy on its head at every turn.

On another note, Benn commends the film for not using scenes of forlorn ex-lovers staring out the window to Tegan and Sara.  I’d like to add that it’s got a wonderful indie soundtrack by many artists similar to Tegan and Sara, and yet never relies on them to complete a scene.  They add the proper mood and atmosphere but aren’t the only thing propelling the story forward.

One Response to “(500) Days of Summer”

  • My Top 10 Favorite Movies of the First Half of 2009 | Lock, Stock, and Two Film Geeks Says:

    […] This movie is so relatable it’s not even funny.  I may not have lived exactly this, but it’s so universal that it strikes home anyway.  And yet it feels specific and genuine at the same time.  It’s a really witty and fresh script as well.  Both actors are great, and have good chemistry.  And there’s Zooey Deschanel, who I’ve had an unabashed crush on ever since I saw Mumford and Eulogy, two of her earliest films.  Sadly she just got married to one of my favorite musicians, Ben Gibbard, so I’ll have to begin to mentally let her go.  There’s a great mix of indie music too, and some wonderful directorial stylistic flairs.  Benn and I reviewed it in depth in our Film Duel column. […]

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