Tuesday, April 19, 2011

(500) Days of Summer

(I Hate) This Title
Toward the beginning of (500) Days of Summer, the main character argues that this is not a love story.  I don't know how accurate that statement is.  This is kind of a romantic comedy for dudes, in the grand tradition of High Fidelity.  In other words, it's a romantic comedy that is happy to point out how just how it is not conforming to the formulas of the traditional rom-com.  And yet, when you watch it, you get the distinct feeling that this is a romantic comedy.  Because it really, really, really feels like one, until you get to the end.  The ending reminded me of a song by one of my favorite bands, Pulp.  Here's their awful music video, complete with the finest British fashion, circa 1996.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with a note at the beginning of each new scene, pointing out where the scene lines up in the 500 days of Tom's story.  The basics of the story are not particularly unconventional.  Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has studied to be an architect but works writing greeting cards, is immediately smitten when he meets the new girl at work.  Her name is Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and the day they meet is Day 1.  Summer is pretty fun and outgoing, but she doesn't let people get emotionally close to her; in other words, she's an awesome acquaintance, but not much of a friend.  Plus, she claims to not want a boyfriend.  Pshaw!  Isn't this a kinda sorta romantic comedy?  There must be some semblance of romance, right?
I think she's explaining why she sounds a little like Kermit when she sings in She & Him.

The nonlinear story structure is what makes this feel like a romantic comedy.  If it was told in chronological order, it wouldn't be very funny.  Most of the humor comes from juxtaposing different days in the 500 day time line, making the scenes seem comically at odds.  Sure, there's some good dialogue within the scenes themselves, but I don't think this would qualify as either very "romantic" or "comedic" without this story structure.

The acting in this movie is never bad, but you might recognize some of the characters as fairly generic.  I enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance; I thought he hit the nail on the head as the single guy who is trying to decode the mystery of woman, with varying degrees of success.  If absolutely nothing else, I have to admit that I liked his character's wardrobe; I'm pretty sure I own every album featured on his band T-shirts.  His character is very likable, and it's easy to identify with him, even if he does get a little whiny at times.  His only flaw seems to be selling himself short, which isn't exactly the sort of character flaw that adds complexity to a character.  Zooey Deschanel once again plays an eccentric and somewhat flighty object of desire.  If that sounds familiar, it's because she has played this type of character a few times, notably in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I can totally buy her as an object of desire, but I haven't seen her in a role that's demanded much from her yet.  The rest of the cast is full of small parts.  Clark Gregg plays Tom's surprisingly kind stuffed shirt of a boss.  Matthew Gray Gubler is the friend that has a stable relationship and contributes almost nothing to the story until he has a speech about true love.  Chloe Moretz was pretty amusing as Tom's little sister and confidant; once again, she plays a character mature beyond her years, and she does a pretty good job of it.  Geoffrey Arend is Tom's idiot friend; I'm okay with Arend's performance here, but I just wanted to point out that he is married to Christina Hendricks.  That makes no damn sense to me.
Arend, master of mind control?
I should also point out Minka Kelly's brief appearance at the end of the film.  She didn't have a chance to do much, since her character's job was to just look pretty and say five or six lines, but her character is important to the story.

This was director Marc Webb's first feature film, and it's a pretty good debut.  I'm not exactly sure what about this movie got him the job directing the 2012 Spider-Man reboot, but he certainly shows some signs of talent in this film.  Nonlinear stories can be tricky to pull off on film, and they can appear gimmicky.  I don't see any way around the gimmicky thing; this would have been a far less interesting story if it was told in chronological order.  However, I think Webb pulled off the storytelling quite well.  He used a lot of strong images, along with the indicators as to what day happened when, to help the audience understand where each chapter fell within the overall story.  His use of locations and costumes definitely made the story easier to follow.  I also thought that he did a good job handling the overall tone of the film.  It's kind of funny, but not at the expense of the story.  It's kind of sad, but the humor balances it out.  I really enjoyed Webb's homages to other film genres; there is a short musical scene, one that is reminiscent of Italian cinema,and a touch of noir.

There really are a lot of things to like in this movie.  It doesn't play by the typical rules that we have come to know and expect in our romantic movies.  The direction and storytelling are pretty fun.  I feel like I should have enjoyed this far more than I did, because so many of the pieces seem right up my alley. 

Unfortunately, I don't think that this film is nearly as different as the filmmakers would want you to believe.  There are a lot of similarities here to other movies, some of them are obviously intentionally self-aware (the romantic comedy story arc, the film style homages, etc.) and some of them surprisingly oblivious (Tom's rant against the greeting card industry is surprisingly close to something out of High Fidelity).  Right off the bat, the story claims to not be a love story, and then it promptly manipulates the chronology of the story to fit the established formula of a love story; I understand that the writers were being clever with that, but it definitely felt too self-satisfied for my tastes.  Even the title tries to do something different, with the parentheses around "500," and, for reasons I can't really justify, irks me.

On the other hand, the story is quirky, the acting is pretty good (particularly Gordon-Levitt, who I am liking more and more) and the direction was especially good for a (not) romantic comedy.  I definitely enjoyed watching the movie, but it didn't have enough emotional impact to overcome a lack of explosions or utter coolness. 

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