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Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

* * * *

Director: Marc Webb
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

There aren’t a lot of movies that deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Annie Hall, but (500) Days of Summer is one of them. While most romantic comedies centre on the romance of possibility and end at the real beginning, this one focuses instead on an actual relationship, with all its inherent ups and downs, and knows that just because something is good, doesn’t mean it’s meant to be permanent. I can think of no better way to introduce this movie than to quote another great comedy: “Love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and break out hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit.”

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hopeless romantic. How hopeless? He thinks The Graduate has a happy ending. The first time he sees Summer (Zooey Deschanel), he’s smitten, as many men are. Alas, she does not want a boyfriend, as she prefers to be independent and not “belong” to anyone. Because he wants her so badly, he allows himself to believe that he can change her mind, that he can convince her as he’s convinced himself that they’re fated to be together. Their relationship begins casually (for her, anyway), gets serious, and then abruptly ends, leaving him heartbroken and confused. As he looks back on the relationship, he just can’t understand where it all went wrong. They were so right for each other so how can it just be over?

The problem is that despite Tom’s proclamations that Summer is the love of his life, he doesn’t really know her. He’s so fixated on his idea of a perfect, permanent love and so determined to make her fit into the mould that he’s always had in his mind that it prevents him from really seeing her as a human being in her own right. This disconnect is exacerbated by the unconscious knowledge that as much as he wants to he can’t actually make her fit into his vision, and all the anxieties that that knowledge entails. One of the most telling scenes for me is when Tom and Summer go to a bar and she’s relentlessly hit on by some idiot. The guy expresses disbelief that Tom is Summer’s boyfriend and Tom punches him, which upsets Summer. “I did it for you!” he laments, which is absolutely not true. He may have done it because of her, but he certainly didn’t do it for her. He did it for himself because the guy in the bar wounded his pride and expressed Tom’s own fear that Summer is out of his league, that she’s going to realize it and that she’s going to leave him.

As a character, Summer is thinly conceived. Since we only see her through Tom’s eyes this makes sense because he either can’t read her or doesn’t really want to. Late in the film, one of Tom’s friends compares his girlfriend to his dream girl and declares that his girlfriend is better because she’s real. Tom thinks he can have both the reality and the dream and so he ignores those things about Summer that don’t conform to his ideal. To emphasize this the film incorporates many elements of fantasy, including a dance number and a sequence done in split screen, dividing Tom’s dream version of an event from the reality of it. These elements are folded easily into the larger narrative and provide a lot of insight into Tom’s character and state of mind.

I went into (500) Days of Summer somewhat guarded. Having been bombarded with the trailer for the last couple of weeks, I felt a bit over the movie before even seeing it, but my enthusiasm for it was renewed once I was watching it. It isn’t a perfect movie – I could have lived without the “wise child” character and I think that the ending is perhaps too clever by half – but it is pretty great and features wonderful performances from both Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel.


Ryan McNeil said...

"Tom thinks he can have both the reality and the dream and so he ignores those things about Summer that don’t conform to his ideal."

Well said. I'll admit that back when I was dating, I far too often saw a woman for much more than what she really was, and told myself that anything outside of that was manageable. We all do it sometimes, don't we? Ignore who a person really is just because we think they're just so cool?

You're right that this movie isn't perfect, but I think what you've said here is that it's far better than it has to be.

Great piece - hopefully more people go to see this flick.

Norma Desmond said...

I hope it's a hit, too. It deserves to be seen and hopefully it finds an audience.

I think you're right that all of us, at one point or another, try to make someone what we need or want them to be, rather than see them for who they are. That's why the film resonates, because it has a real thread of truth to it.

hanum said...

I like this movie a lot, it reminds me of someone. Good.. Good..