(500) Days of Summer

500days(500) Days of Summer is a movie custom made for people who love Belle and Sebastian and The Smiths, Annie Hall and Memento, Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. It’s a movie, in other words, custom made for me.

I’m not suggesting it’s as good as any of those things… it’s not. But it’s in their spirit and that counts for a lot.

As the dry narration says right up front, it’s a story about a boy and a girl but it’s not a love story. In fact, even that is a little misleading… it’s really a movie about a boy. The girl, Summer (well portrayed by the endearing, sweetly sexy Zooey Deschanel), is more a type than a fully fleshed-out character. And oh, what a type. Casually irresistible, she draws a certain kind of guy in like a magnet through no fault or design of her own. She ‘s never as into you as you’re into her but she’s just vulnerable enough to make you think that might change.

In other words, she’s Trouble-with-a-capital-T, a buzz saw into which the boy, Tom (splendidly played by fine young actor Joseph Gordon Levitt), walks head — and heart — first.

(500) Days of Summer belongs to a rare breed… the chick flick for guys. It’s not a guy flick, in which men act the way men are generally expected to act — think Wedding Crashers, The Hangover or pretty much any Judd Apatow movie. No, it’s about a certain kind of sensitive guy who’s a little more emotional, a little more genuine than we’re used to seeing on screen.

The most recent example of a chick flick for guys I can think of is Garden State, which shares with Summer a quirky central romance, a great indie soundtrack and a hipper-than-thou sensibility that can either hit on all cylinders or rub you the wrong way, depending on — I don’t know — your mood, your personality, your general taste in movies. Garden State didn’t always work for me. I was particularly annoyed by its pat ending. But (500) Days of Summer worked for me pretty much start to finish.

The film is chock full of creative flourishes (some might say gimmicks), from the non-traditional narrative structure — the 500 days in the title are presented out of order — to sequences involving animation, a song-and-dance routine and a split-screen comparison of Tom’s expectations vs. his reality. Just about every one of those choices worked for me… rather than ask why this film decided to use so many of them, I’d prefer to ask why so many other films don’t.

One reason, I imagine, is that it’s easy for a film to be a bit too airy and inventive… suddenly it’s in danger of simply floating away. That’s why you need an anchor and (500) Days of Summer has a great one in the form of Joseph Gordon Levitt. Levitt impressed me in Brick and The Lookout — two very different roles that showed off his dramatic chops — but his Thomas is something even more difficult to pull off… a regular guy. He possesses an easy charm that has you rooting for him from the first scene and throughout the emotional roller coaster that follows.

First-time feature director Marc Webb and first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have created something special right out of the gate. It could be a fluke, but I’m looking forward to seeing what everybody involved in this film comes up with next.


10 thoughts on “(500) Days of Summer

  1. Amy says:

    Your description of the film brings to mind the great Say Anything. Anybody can be a guy, so be a man, Lloyd’s best friend Corey tells him. And from that moment (well, probably even earlier, but definitely from that moment) you know this is going to be a special film.

    There was nothing of consequence that I didn’t like about 500 Days of Summer (other than the timeline seeming ridiculously compressed at the end), but there was also nothing about it that was special and fine the way Say Anything was – instantly. Cameron Crowe made a wonderful film with funny dialogue and cast winning, charming actors to live in their roles and all of it immediately came together.

    With 500 Days of Summer, I never doubted for a moment that the filmmaker liked The Smiths and Annie Hall and Memento. Or that he desperately wanted us to know how much he liked them. And what a hip film this was. And all that trying made me like it – and him – less.

    I do agree – wholeheartedly – that Joseph Gordon Levitt was fantastic. Not only was he the best part of the film, it’s difficult to imagine the whole house of cards not falling apart without him at the center of it. Like that young John Cusack, he is charming and sensitive and earnest and likable all at once. If “to know Lloyd Dobler is to love him,” then surely to know Tom Hansen (Levitt’s character in 500 Days) should have the same consequence.

    Anyway, I liked the film very much, and it probably it the most recent, best example of our age old debate about expectations negatively (or positively) affecting our impression of the film. I went into this movie expecting the next Say Anything and walked out disappointed. The same weekend, I walked into Funny People expecting the next The Hangover, and I walked out pleased it was better.

    I’ll tell you one thing for sure – I’d be even more eager to see what Webb and his writers come up with next if they would try less to appear to be trying so damn hard. Meanwhile, what the hell is Cameron Crowe up to anyway?!

  2. Clay says:

    Well, I definitely wasn’t expecting Say Anything…. And I don’t think it’s necessary to compare new films to the best examples in their genre… that just sets you up for disappointment time and time again.

    This is a broader discussion that just this film, but I tend to grade new movies on a curve. I compare them to other films that year, or other recent films in the same genre. If I expected every action film to be Die Hard and every romantic comedy to be Say Anything…, I’d never like anything!

    And I don’t mind when writers and directors try hard (even if it shows) so long as I’m entertained and/or moved by what they’re trying. Quentin Tarantino is a great example of a director who tries too hard, but I love him for it (even when I can point out the flaws). This was definitely a kitchen sink movie, but I much prefer that to cookie cutter.

  3. Dana says:

    I liked this movie well enough, but clearly not as much as you. And ranking it ahead of the absolutely wonderful Star Trek is just absurd:) Oh, but that’s right, Star Trek was commercial, and this was indie. I get it.

    As I said to you when we discussed this film “offline,” I don’t think this movie would be getting 4 star reviews if it weren’t an indie movie. I found this film to be on par with something like He’s Just Not That Into You–a film that roundly received 2 to 3 star reviews.

    This film tried to do WAY too much, and I found the results jarring at time. The narration was largely unnecessary and it’s sporadic use was awkward. The bouncing around in the time line was cute enough, but, as Amy said, it ultimately made no sense from a plot standpoint. The use of the documentary style where the actors are directly addressing the camera all of sudden 3/4 of the way into the film came out of nowhere and was, again, jarring. The one scene using animation much like the A-Ha video was cute, but forced and disconnected. The singular “musical” scene was also cute, but worked far better in Enchanted.

    I suppose that, in the end, you may be no more surprised that I didn’t love this film than I am surprised that you did. I’m sure if it had been set in Europe with subtitles, it would have poll vaulted to number one on your list:)

  4. Amy says:

    A “kitchen sink” movie, by your very use of that cliche to describe it, can be just as cookie cutter as any other less ambitious but equally predictable film. Your choice of Tarantino as an example is a fascinating one, as his ego is so outsized and his ambition for each film so great that his successes and failures both tend to be spectacular. I find that he succeeds far more often than he fails, and I do applaud him for trying so hard – still, his trying hard is feels quite different than What Webb does in 500 Days.

    It’s perhaps the difference of sitting down to a 7 course meal that surprises in all sorts of delightful ways. Your sure there are thousands of empty calories in there, but it all tastes so wonderful and the chef has combined so many familiar ingredients in odd and fantastic combinations, that you just go with it. The kitchen might be a mess, the chef an eccentric or a mad man, but the meal is one for the books. As opposed to the chef who bought Chef Boyardee and assorted other ready-made dishes, spent a lot of the time in the kitchen dirtying pans and splotching food on his apron, then invites you into the kitchen to see how hard he worked to create the meal he is about to serve you. You then sit down to a perfectly satisfying but far from memorable dinner.

    Not sure if that metaphor works at all, but Webb is no Tarantino. 😉

    As for your other point, I absolutely expect any new film to be as good as any of my favorites of the past. Why not? Shouldn’t each film released have an equal chance of being as good as those already made? I don’t expect each one will be, but I know that any of them could be. The way critics were drooling all over 500 Days of Summer, I absolutely thought that film might enter the ranks of my favorites romantic films of all time. In the past several years, I’ve experienced Eternal Sunshine, Moulin Rouge, Up… each powerful films about love. Should I only compare Up to Bolt or Monsters Vs. Aliens? Not sure what kind of curve that is. No. For me, each film is compared to all films, especially those within its genre. And 500 Days rests comfortably in the middle of the pack. A solid and respectable C+/B-

  5. Amy says:

    you’re – Dana will never let me hear the end of that one 🙂

  6. Clay says:

    Well, I won’t belabor the point on this film because we obviously disagree on it (and, to quote Senator Stuart Smalley, that’s… ok).

    But that last part is very interesting, perhaps worthy of a post all its own — stay tuned. By default, I assume movies that will vie for “best of all time” status show up maybe once every four or five years, if that. Any new film could be that good, sure, but I think it’s madness to expect it.

    I derive far more pleasure from movies if I’m occasionally pleasantly surprised than if I’m almost always disappointed.

  7. Amy says:

    Well… sure. That’s the ongoing “expectations debate.” 😉 I only expected that 500 Days might be one of those films because of the buzz, the subject matter, and an engaging preview that worked wonders for me (as did the trailer for Away We Go, which hugely disappointed me). Hmmm…. maybe it’s all about the effectiveness of coming attractions?!

    While I don’t walk into each film excpecting it to be the next great thing, I certainly try to only see films I expect to enjoy and I do hold out hope that I might be pleasantly surprised that it will enter the ranks of one list or another.

  8. pegclifton says:

    I’m intrigued by the “chick flick for guys” concept. I pretty much hate the guy flicks and I am (sorry Dana) a big Indie fan so this movie could work for me, not sure about Dad though. I tend to like surprises in movies if they are done well; I guess I’ll have to continue my thoughts when I see the movie.

  9. dana says:

    For the record, I don’t have a bias against independent films. Indies are often some of the better films of a given year, as are documentaries. It’s just that, often times I feel that critics unduly praise an indie film, and forgive its faults far easier than a non-Indie. Both Amy and I found this particular film good, but flawed. We similarly found films like He’s Just Not That Into You and Proposal good, but flawed. Those non indie films however were largely dismissed by critics.

  10. Clay says:

    But you liked this one better than either of those, and probably for the same reasons the critics did. I think it’s a matter of (some) indie films aiming higher than traditional Hollywood films. They might miss the mark occasionally, as almost all films do, but if the film is obviously not something thrown together as product by a studio, that shows.

    He’s Not That Into You (which I haven’t seen) was a popular book that some studio exec greenlit with an eye toward stuffing it with pretty, bankable stars and having a big opening weekend. (500) Days of Summer was a labor of love by a few young filmmakers who shopped it around for years hoping to get it made.

    That has little to do with quality… the former could be fantastic and the latter garbage. But it’s part of the experience of each film, and it might make it easier to excuse the flaws in one vs. the other.

    Now the truth is, 95% of indie films suck hard. But those rarely see the light of day, don’t make it through the festival circuit with great reviews and never make it to theaters outside of New York and Los Angeles. The indie films that make it to us are generally the cream of the crop (on a consensus basis… obviously any movie can suck depending on the viewer).

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