“This is a story of boy meets girl…”. So says the narrator of (500) Days of Summer in the opening of his introduction. He then introduces us to the boy –Tom Hansen, who is waiting for The One- and the girl –Summer Finn, who does not believe in The One. They met on January 8th and we see 500 days of their relationship. But as the narrator tells us up front- “…this is not a love story”. It is the story of Boy, who falls in love with Girl, then meets her, then spends 500 days denying the fact that although she may be his One, he is not hers.
From the beginning, the film announces itself as a hip, precocious, indy film. It’s got a cocky disclaimer, a very knowing narrator, a somewhat opaque title (why the parentheses?), split-screen home movies, people talking into the camera and a jumbled chronology. Where we are in the chronology is announced by a title card telling us which of the 500 days we’re in, and the card changes color according to the mood of that day. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), our hero, has the adorable job of writing gift cards, after not finding a job in his field of architecture. This compendium of indy quirk is there to make its audience into a co-conspirator. It says ‘this is a film for young, smart, cool, people who get it’. In essence, it is trying to create the feeling of the a cult film that is on its own wave-length, part of the increasingly ubiquitous tendency in film marketing of getting the audience to feel flattered for liking a film, and defend it as they would a good friend. This is the goal of so many films today that it has cheapened the notion of ‘cult’ and ‘indy’ to the point where ‘The Dark Knight’ –the second highest grossing film of all times (in unadjusted grosses, at least)- is a film people feel the need to vitriolically defend against the slightest slights, as if it were a small film that they discovered and is unique to a small group. We can’t let Them say anything bad about Our film.
I bring this up not to tear down this film (or ‘The Dark Knight’, which I love with reservations), but because this trend has become so prevalent that I can’t help but feeling suckered into liking a film. Every Pixar film is a masterpiece because we all know how great those guys are…the taste it leaves is bad enough when one has serious problems with a film (Like I had with ‘Up’, or ‘District 9’), but it’s even worse when one really likes a film. It makes me wonder if my liking for it is tainted. I bring that up because I really liked ‘(500) Days of Summer’. It’s a good story, it’s very funny, it is touching, and, at times, devastating. And it’s got a good and very likable main character, with a performer to match.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt got his start as the youngest member of the alien Solomon family on the sitcom ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’. After that show ended, he appeared on the independent film scene, specializing in brooding and troubled young men (most notably in ‘Brick’, ‘The Lookout’ and ‘Mysterious Skin’). ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is his first comic leading-man turn, and it fits him like a glove (though he was also in ‘G.I. Joe’, which I haven’t seen). He is charming and convincing as the idealistic Tom, waiting for the love of his life. Ever the romantic 13 year old at heart, he has a spiritual guide in the ways of his world…his 12 year old sister (Another sickeningly indy conceit…at least ‘Juno’ acknowledges that its know-it-all doesn’t know-it-all at all). Instantly smitten by new co-worker Summer, Tom is convinced he’s in a classic love story (one of his models is a drastic misreading of ‘The Graduate’). Their scenes of courtship are lovely, culminating in Tom breaking out into choreographed dance (to Hall & Oates ‘You Make my Dreams’). Even the hipness of it all didn’t prevent me from falling for these scenes- Tom is real and relatable enough that I was genuinely happy for him.
Real and relatable are not words I would use to describe Zooey Deschanel as Summer. She is generally an enigma to Tom, and was to these male eyes as well. Deschanel might be the reigning queen of indy quirk, but it’s not her weirdness that was distancing. She is actually the grounded one of the two. But all we see of her is from Tom’s eyes. We don’t see her side, the struggle she has of being the ideal of a guy she really likes, but not absolutely in love with. It’s a good performance as an only partially visible character, and a film focusing on her could be very good. But she is not an equal part of the film (this is not a criticism, it just is the way the story needed to be told).
The good times are lovely, but the bad times are the ones that made the film something a bit special. Tom’s sadness over Summer’s rejection is portrayed in various ways (at one point, he imagines himself as the protagonist in a Bergman film, speaking in depressed and existential French). Even when he tries to remember just how bad the bad times were, he can’t help thinking of the good ones. The final encounter he has with Summer in the film has Summer being reasonable and compassionate, but it devastating to Tom and to us, who have been with him all along (even though we know this isn’t working long before he does). In the film, if not really explored, is the notion that Tom knows love from the movies and from pop songs, and can imagine nothing but that ideal.
The film looks nice, and it tries to incorporate Tom’s architectural ambitions into its look (with varying results). It’s got a terrific soundtrack, and its score –by Mychael Danna & Bob Simonson- contains a theme that cheekily incorporates the first three notes of ‘Moon River’ into a new melody, implying the Audrey Hepburn ideal Tom sees in Summer.
I was with the film the entire way. I knew where it was going and how it needed to end. And its ending is absolutely right- the correct ending, done well enough. But it is here that the hipness of the film really handicapped it. Instead of the correct ending feeling cathartic, it felt contrived and a bit too-cool-for-school. There is an underlying sincerity deficit to this film. A totally unnecessary one- there’s enough to it already; there was no reason to fancy it up into something less special. But the hipness undercuts it, and stops it short of being a really terrific tale of two people who feel differently about each other. I really liked and enjoyed it, but I would have liked it much more if it wasn’t sucking up to me, flattering me into its community before giving me a good reason to join.