REVIEW: (500) Days of Summer
Produced by: Mason Novick, Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters, Steven J. Wolfe, Scott G. Hyman
Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Edited by: Alan Edward Bell
Cinematography by: Eric Steelberg
Music by: Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Patricia Belcher, Rachel Boston, Minka Kelly, Maile Flanagan, Yvette Nicole Brown, Richard McGonagle
“The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Except you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”
The opening lines to the movie – unspoken, but probably the loudest statement this film makes – sets the tone for the remainder of this quasi-romantic comedy. Reportedly inspired by a real relationship experienced by screenwriter Scott Neustadter, (500) Days of Summer is clear right from the start (heck, even from its title) that this is not a story about everlasting love, but rather a season in passing. In fact, as if that point weren’t clear enough, yes, the girl at the center of the film is, in fact, named Summer. She’s a pretty girl who floats into the life of Tom, our film’s leading man, who is immediately smitten by Summer when she is introduced to everyone at work as the boss’ new assistant at the greeting card company Tom works for (another canny element playing with the theme of cheap, temporary sentiments). Summer is, as I said before, very pretty, seems quite nice, and she shares the same taste in music as Tom, even going so far as to make the first move when she notices this coincidence. Naturally, the two decide to hang out together. And, also naturally, there’s a big misunderstanding about what all this means. Where have you heard that before?
(Minor spoilers ahead.)
While the film goes through the usual motions of a romantic comedy – boy falling in love with girl, boy and girl have misunderstandings about their relationship, characters are assisted by their quirky comedy relief friends, romantic rivals entering the picture, and the ultimate denouement to the film, with its eye ever enthusiastically looking forward into the characters’ futures – this film in particular set itself apart from the pack in a few particular ways.
Along with the relationship expiration date, the film comes at the story from a different angle. Tom does seem to want to be with Summer, and he’s willing to put up with a lot to be with her, it’s a frustrating experience. While they both probably contributed to their troubles, it’s clear this story is being told from the guy’s perspective, with the nonlinear story hopping around to various points in their 500 day relationship like fickle memories figuring out where it all went wrong and whether the trouble is worth it. This angle is something that other romantic comedies tend not to do without making the guy some sort of idealized fantasy figure who will do anything to get the girl (and succeed), as long as it means they can be together forever. Tom isn’t perfect, however, and neither is Summer, for that matter, and so, naturally, things don’t necessarily sort themselves out in the neat little ways that romantic movies often do.
The movie tends to lack the usual broad characterizations and gestures of the usual rom-com and eschews the usual contrived whimsy and cuteness that factors into the plot of so many of those movies, despite the focus being on the Queen Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Zooey Deschanel. (That isn’t to say that there’s no fun, as there are a few notable exceptions, one in particular memorably going overboard on all those factors, but these exist mostly to drive home the fact that, yes, this is, indeed, from the guy’s perspective, and these undeniably take place outside the film’s reality, so they don’t count.) Deschanel as Summer is actually a perfect casting decision, as she’s rather good at turning the typecasting on its head and making Summer… well, not quite a monster, but certainly a sort of antagonistic entity who is naturally at once completely irresistible and yet so unmistakably bad for Tom.
Tom is himself kind of superficial in why he sticks around, and even moments of voiceover seem to show him as being a bit condescending towards her, but he’s also kind of a naïve romantic who seems to genuinely believe this will blossom into something more meaningful just by virtue of persistence and attraction – and, of course, a totally understandable misreading of Summer’s interactions with him. Like Deschanel as Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also perfectly cast as Tom, selling the guy’s perception of his own innocence and yet also the actual vulnerability and aggravation he feels towards Summer and her mixed signals, as well as at himself for being so uncontrollably infatuated with her. He’s surprisingly human that way, which helps us to empathize with him quite a bit more than if he had been portrayed as a self-centered jerk who just wanted to sleep with her.
A lot of this has to do with the care and cleverness with which the filmmakers crafted the film, resulting in a deceptively novel and meaningful spin on familiar territory. They prevent either character from being one-note or boring, though still maintaining an air of authenticity and familiarity in Tom and Summer, both in their identifiably human qualities and the roles their charactertypes play in other movies. Considering what we know about the fate of Tom and Summer’s relationship, however, that must mean that Tom’s not really a spin on the romantic movie lead character but… rather the leading character’s rival! Yes, this film is finally giving that character the attention and fair depiction they deserve. (This may, in fact, be why Scott Neustadter notes that the real life counterpart to the “Jenny” mentioned in the film’s opening found so much to identify with in Tom, rather than the character she inspired, Summer. Perhaps the whole being from a man’s perspective isn’t quite as significant as I initially thought?) Basically, (500) Days of Summer is like if The Notebook were being told from the perspective of the undeservedly mistreated James Marsden character who was never heard from again as soon as his pretty, spoiled, and fickle fiancée finally made up her mind and chose… well, certainly not him.
It’s initially a subtle but still significant twist, one that suggests that people who seemingly “lose out” in one relationship, no matter how much they contributed to taking it to the breakup point, may not necessarily be deserving of their vilification nor the pain they may feel once their former partner has moved on to seemingly greener pastures. It’s this refreshing and empathetic angle that likely contributed the most to the film’s unexpectedly huge success with both critics and audiences across the world, not to mention the reliably charming performances, impeccable storytelling and editing, and an entertaining, smile-inducing script (I wouldn’t necessarily call it a laugh riot, but it’s definitely amusing in all the right places). (500) Days of Summer cleverly subverts the romantic comedy genre with its relative realism and unromanticized-but-no-less-enthusiastic approach to relationships. As a result, it’s really no wonder why the film has achieved the distinction and recognition it has for being one of the best films in its chosen field.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5