Sunday, August 2, 2009

Love, Not Necessarily ((500) Days of Summer)


(This post includes spoilers.)

Late in the buoyantly funny and tenderhearted (500) Days of Summer, our hero, Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), goes to a party hosted by the woman he loves, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Having endured a wrenching breakup, now hopeful for a reconciliation, Tom eagerly walks up the steps to Summer's apartment (scored to Regina Spektor's plaintive "Hero"), and as he does the screen splits into two sections: one titled "Expectations," the other "Reality." The director, Marc Webb, lets both scenarios play out simultaneously, and the culmination is more than a clever gambit: it gets at the frustrating disconnect between whom those closest to us really are and who we want them to be. A creator of several music videos, Webb shows breathtaking confidence in the effects he pulls off (this one rivaling the fireworks bash in Adventureland as the scene of the year). Yet he's clearly not interested only in effects for themselves, but puts them at the service of the characters.

(500) Days of Summer has a memorable pair, though we get to know one better than the other. The original script, by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (who wrote Pink Panther 2, but don't hold that against them), filters the story through Tom's perspective; and I wish the filmmakers had been even more generous in offering Summer's point of view. I get that she's supposed to be unknowable, but it's still something of a cop-out in the Age of Apatow; I may just be tired of movies that don't seem to consider that their female characters might actually have a point-of-view. (Judd Apatow, incidentally, is quite capable of depicting a persuasive feminine sensibility -- see Linda Cardelinni in Freaks and Geeks -- he just now chooses not to.) Having said that, at least (500) Days of Summer shows that its male protagonist's viewpoint is myopic, not entirely trustworthy, yet also evolving, in flux. An omniscient narrator amusingly warns us early on that "sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate" formed Tom's belief in true love -- in finding "The One" -- and from there Webb adroitly maneuvers the audience in and out of Tom's head, so that we comprehend his perspective without being asked to share it.

Gordon-Levitt is perfect for Webb's design, a rare young actor able to convey a complicated and resonant inner life. In the teen-noir Brick, Gordon-Levitt was cynical, dogged, subtly manipulative; here he's boyishly naive, with the kind of open idealism destined for disemboweling. A talented sketch-artist with once aspirations of being an architect, Tom now slums for a Los Angeles-based greeting-card company. His nerdy tie-and-sweater-vest combo is the out-of-place attire of a young man in dire need of loosening up, and Summer, newly arrived from Michigan as the company's administrative assistant, is played by Deschanel as the kind of young woman -- adventurous yet guarded, empathetic yet non-commital -- perfect for what Tom needs at the moment without necessarily being the perfect woman for him.

There are more than a few echoes of Annie Hall in (500) Days of Summer, namely in how the central relationship is depicted out-of-sequence. A digital counter frequently appears onscreen to inform us which "day" we are witnessing, with a background illustration turning bright or dark depending on whether it's before or after the breakup. Following Woody Allen's example, Webb finds the humor in the pain, even at the point where, to quote Alvy Singer, a relationship becomes "a dead shark." An audacious dance number after Tom sleeps with Summer for the first time hilariously jump-cuts to a grim-faced Tom staggering to work shortly after being dumped. (That dance sequence is viewable online, with the option of director's commentary, though if you don't want to be spoiled don't follow the link.)

If, like me, you've personally experienced or witnessed friends in emotional free-fall when their romantic hopes are dashed, (500) Days of Summer will provide plenty of shocks of recognition. (Once, in college, I came home from a long day of classes to find my roommate spread Christ-like atop his bed with REO Speedwagon blaring from the speakers. "Wild guess," I said, "You broke up?") The occasions when the movie's cleverness starts to wear heavy -- giving Tom a preternaturally bright, advise-dispensing kid sister possibly not a good idea -- are salvaged by scenes of genuine feeling, as when Tom's boss calls him into his office following an uncharacteristic downturn in his job performance. (One of his latest greeting cards reads: "Roses are red, Violets are blue....Fuck you, whore.") Tom's boss, whose name is Vance, is played by that expert in vileness Clark Gregg (who was the predatory small-town lawyer in David Mamet's State and Main). You expect a tongue-lashing, possibly even a pink slip when the scene begins. Instead, Vance sympathizes with Tom and offers him the chance to channel his depression into crafting cards for medical problems and funerals instead.

Moments like this make (500) Days of Summer -- if not quite in the class of Annie Hall and The Graduate -- more than just another tepid romantic comedy. So too do the complexities evident in Summer's feelings for Tom, and how the filmmakers find the right balance between refusing to justify her actions (there's a scene where she dances with Tom when arguably she shouldn't) without judging her. Deschanel has an an amazing breakdown scene after Summer watches the climax of The Graduate, its ambiguities, which Tom initially missed, suddenly becoming all too clear. Love isn't fair, the movie says, but even those who don't love us the way we want them to can still be an impetus for change and a source of inspiration. Earlier, when Tom and Summer play house in an Ikea store, it's a wonderful metaphor for how couples unconsciously test the dynamics of their relationship to see whether they're right for each other; even if they're not, the experience can prepare you for the next opportunity. The brilliant climactic punchline of (500) Days of Summer may suggest an affirmation that there is only one true love for everyone; yet the entirety of this gently perceptive comedy leaves you with the wisdom that there's room in our hearts for more.

7 comments:

Hokahey said...

Well done! Your descriptions of what Tom and Summer are like are excellent. Tom is "ripe for disemboweling." Yes!

Also - "His nerdy tie-and-sweater-vest combo is the out-of-place attire of a young man in dire need of loosening up, and Summer, newly arrived from Michigan as the company's administrative assistant, is played by Deschanel as the kind of young woman -- adventurous yet guarded, empathetic yet non-commital -- perfect for what Tom needs at the moment without necessarily being the perfect woman for him. " Summer is the harder character to pin down - but you do that well.

Yes, I definitely saw Annie Hall throughout this film; Webb owes a lot to that classic. Meanwhile, Webb has a lot of original strengths to display, and you point them out here.

I came away feeling satisfied with a well-made film, and I hope Webb devotes the same care to his next film. We need carefully made films!

Craig said...

An addendum to my review: One thing has occurred to me about Tom's sister. I think she's there to underline his feelings of inexperience and inadequacy. That from his perspective, even an 11-year-old girl has a more mature worldview.

Hokahey said...

I liked the sister because she looks like a student of mine - same age - and because that student of mine is as wise as Tom's sister is made out to be. Craig, some kids are really wise in a scary way these days! My own teenage students set me straight!

Craig said...

Very true. I guess it just came across as a cliche -- the wiser than her years prepubescent. An older sis would have been more realistic, but less amusingly representative of Tom's mental state.

Craig said...

It's been nearly a week and this movie still lingers in my memory, quite a significant accomplishment for a "romantic comedy" -- quotation marks intended, for (500) Days of Summer is really so much more. Even in retrospect, at times, that excess can be cringe-inducing (and the main source of critical carping amid largely positive reviews); yet it's all of a piece with the protagonist's discombobulated emotional state. It's the movie's ability to pull away from that state -- to essentially disown Tom's vision -- that makes its message unique and, frankly, pretty ballsy. I'm curious to know what others think as this rolls out to more theaters. (Fernando didn't hate it as much as I'd been fearing, but still: it's "less affecting" than the vapid, charmless Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist? Puh-leeze!

Lori said...

Agree 100% with your review. Loved the movie for its unpredictability and simple message. Please remind me...what was the final line in the movie?

Craig said...

(SPOILER)

The final line is when the other interview candidate tells Tom her name: Autumn. With that, the counter resets to "1," and the cycle starts again.