Welcome to Part Two of my live-blogging experiment with (500) Days of Summer (in case you missed Part One, click here), a film with so much going on at any one time that it's tough to isolate individual moments or pinpoint creative choices. For example, I haven't really discussed the use of the counter yet, which ticks off particular days in Tom and Summer's relationship, though not in sequence: the opening scene, for instance, is "Day 488," a brief shot of the pair sitting on a park bench, presumably a couple, her left hand (with wedding ring) atop his right; then we jump back to "Day 1;" after the opening credits, "Day 290"; and so forth. (Another touch I was too oblivious the first time to notice is that the architectural sketch behind the time counter turns brighter or darker depending on the stage in the relationship.)
A line of argument that I've never understood about untraditionally structured movies goes something like this: "If the events in this film were in chronological order, it wouldn't be anything special." Yeah....so what? If the events in The Godfather were told out-of-sequence, that movie wouldn't be anything special either. As Quentin Tarantino is fond of saying, a film tells its story the way it has to tell it, according to the order of the information. (500) Days of Summer isn't telling a straightforward story; it's all about juxtaposing moments before and after a breakup, partly to make those moments funny (after all, it is a comedy), and partly to enable the audience to attain a degree of perspective that Tom Hansen lacks. It's most unusual for a romantic comedy to ask us to share its protagonist's feelings without endorsing them.
We leap ahead to Day 290 -- essentially the start of "Act I" -- and here's something else to hate: the preternaturally bright kid sister. It doesn't help that the actress (Chloe Moretz) has an overstudied quality, though her first line is terrifically matter-of-fact: "You did the right thing." Yet as I wrote in my original review, I think she's there as a joke regarding Tom's feelings of inferiority toward women. Even this pint-sized sprite knows more about how the world works than he does.
We also meet Tom's two best buds -- Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) and McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend, who looks and sounds like the second coming of Curtis Armstrong [a compliment]). I didn't fully appreciate it on the first viewing, but this pair makes for effective opposing extremes: Paul having been in a solid relationship with the same girl since seventh grade; Mac never having seriously dated anybody. Both are pretty clueless about women, yet both are sharp enough to see that Tom is flirting with disaster.
Sometimes, like with this scene where Summer breaks up with Tom ("Out of the blue!" he claims), the time-counter doesn't appear at all. Marc Webb, the director, has good instincts for pacing and timing and knowing when to trust the audience.
"We argue all the time."
"That is bullshit!"
Gordon-Levitt's line readings are stupendously funny. He gives a star performance in this film.
Deschanel's Sid-and-Nancy quip is the kind of zinger that got accused of hipsterism. What escaped notice is it's being used to upend traditional gender roles -- that Summer identifies herself as "Sid," thereby making Tom (as he himself glumly observes) "Nancy." I hope it comes across as a compliment to say that Gordon-Levitt has just the right dash of femininity in his physicality and demeanor to pull this character off -- he's an unusually sensitive actor. Another review even pointed out that Tom's nerdy sweater-vest-and-tie attire is reminiscent of Diane Keaton's in Annie Hall.
And the narrator returns to helpfully inform us: "There are two kinds of people. There's women. And there's men. Summer Finn" -- wait for it -- "was a woman." Just as I'm laughing at that, an even funnier black-and-white montage begins, a discourse on "The Summer Effect."
Summer's caption from her yearbook, "Color my life with the chaos of trouble," leads to a spike in Belle & Sebastian record sales in Michigan that "still puzzle industry analysts." I've never noticed how this sequence plays like something out of Jean-Paul Jeunet. Unlike Jeunet, though, Webb doesn't bang us over the head with another like sequence immediately following, and then another one after that. He has a few change-up pitches in his arsenal.
Back to Day 1, when Tom meets Summer. Webb's direction is nothing special, but he knows when to sit back and bask in the warm interiors of the greeting card company. Kudos to the DP (Eric Steelberg) and production designer (Laura Fox) for making the most with a limited budget. (500) Days is a handsome film, unlike the dirty dishwater of Todd Phillips, Kevin Smith, et al.
MacKenzie's pitch for "Other Mother's Day" is an amusing throwaway gag, yet it also ties into the "death of the nuclear family," at least in Summer's case (and also Tom's, now that I think about it). I like how the greeting card company resembles a real workplace rather than an insular Hollywood idea of one.
Next two scenes emphasize the key theme. First, MacKenzie tells Tom that he heard Summer's a bitch. Then, in the elevator, Summer makes charming small-talk with Tom. ("I love The Smiths.") Expectations vs. Reality.
The difference between the pop-culture references in this film compared to others like it is that here they feel organic to the characters. It's believable that they'd be interested in the music, movies and TV shows that they're interested in.
Webb introduces the office engagement party for one of Tom's co-workers, which will come back into play in the third act. And it reveals that Tom studied to be an architect. The contrast between writing greeting cards and designing buildings plays out in surprising ways. On the surface, the former seems heartfelt while the latter appears cold and mechanical, but the script reverses these notions by film's end. It's also about creating something that lasts.
Fast-forward to Day 154, where Tom tells Paul he's in love with Summer. Also the first time we see the montage of everything he loves about her. Cringeworthy the first time, but sets up a great joke for the second.
Day 22: Neustadter & Weber's script generously spreads the wealth around, as with Paul's deadpan reply to Tom's complaint that he'd be with Summer if good things ever happened to him: "Yeah, well, that's not really where we live." Next scene: another brilliant reading from Gordon-Levitt when Summer asks if he needs anything from the supply room: "I think you know what I need! (awkward beat) Uh...toner?" Scene after that,
Curtis Armstrong Geoffrey Arend does well with: "You're not listening to me. The. Whole. Office. Is. Going."
The big karaoke scene! Where haters of the movie check out permanently. For me, it's saved by Zooey Deschanel's lovely singing voice, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's exuberance, and MacKenzie's realization about Summer's disinterest in having a serious relationship: "You're a dude!" From the start, she's Sid to Tom's Nancy.
"We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world," Summer says. Yet intriguingly, we don't know what city that is yet. (I guessed Chicago.) It's a curious choice to not reveal they're in Los Angeles, but Webb said in an interview that he wanted to show a side of L.A. that nobody ever sees in movies. He didn't want to show the beach, he didn't want the characters to be aspiring actors, he wanted them to be real people with real jobs. I think it works not only for that reason, but also to have the audience's disorientation and false assumptions reflect Tom's.
I've given Deschanel short-shrift so far, but she gives a star-making performance too. Summer is in some ways a more difficult role than Tom, because she has to break through Tom's objectification without us ever seeing things from her point-of-view. I initially griped about the character's lack of knowability, but I think now I was wrong. With a mediocre director or a weak script, Zooey can come across as no more than a flaky space-cadet, but she's more centered here. Her chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is so delicate -- they click, yet don't fully connect -- it's hard to watch sometimes.
The IKEA sequence is one of the most audacious set-pieces in the whole film. On one level, it's about Tom and Summer playing house, testing whether or not they're compatible. On another, it's about the choice of living a pre-fabricated existence (like Fight Club without the snark) and how preconceptions about relationships and marriage and family can prohibit people from truly creating these things from scratch. Too bad the scene ends with a dumb gag about the Chinese family; it plays like a leftover from Neustadter and Weber's Pink Panther 2 script.
Something else that didn't register the first time: before the "Day 34" IKEA scene, we get a lightning-fast "Day 282" IKEA scene, eight days before the big breakup, where Tom tries to recapture the magic of their first visit and an emotionally distant Summer won't have any of it. It would be like showing first Alvy Singer fumbling with the lobsters the second time around before doing it the first time with Annie.
The morning after Tom first sleeps with Summer, which leads to the infectiously silly Hall & Oates dance number. (In a director's commentary, Webb mentions that the color blue is primary in this and other scenes to reflect Summer's eyes.) The marching band and cartoon bluebird are over-the-top. But then so is a young man in love, so what the hell.
And now we see why the movie isn't told in chronological order: because scenes like the above cut from an upbeat Tom walking into an elevator to a haggard, post-breakup Tom staggering out.
Part III -- the final chapter -- coming soon!