Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review: "(500) Days of Summer"

3 stars out of four
Directed by Marc Webb
Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz & Matthew Gray Gubler

• • •

The trailer:

The plot: An offbeat romantic comedy about a woman (Deschanel) who doesn't believe true love exists, and the young man (Gordon-Levitt) who falls for her.

My review: "(500) Days of Summer" is a perfectly entertaining Hollywood rom-com wearing indie clothes. If you A) replace Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel with, say, Shia LaBeouf and Katherine Heigl; B) blind the audience with glossy cinematography; and C) ditch the fleeting use of its lush musical score in favor of Sixpence None the Richer songs, you'd have yourself the Nora Ephron version of "Annie Hall."

But the decisions to cast Levitt and Deschanel are crucial to the film's success, and part of why some may be overstating its perceived meaning or excellence. "(500) Days of Summer" doesn't have anything particularly new or insightful to say about love, but it does have moments of brilliance and truth.

The most brilliant moment of truth comes near the end of the film, when our hero Tom (Gordon-Levitt) goes to a party hosted by his ex, Summer (Deschanel). Tom hopes the party will be a new beginning for the couple, who met at work and began a romance despite Summer's reluctance to enter a serious relationship. Tom's experience in the party is shown two different ways, simultaneously, in split-screen. One shows his expectations, and the other shows his reality. Predictably, the reality doesn't live up to the expectation -- like so many romantic (or hopefully romantic) encounters we all have in real life. The scene is a marvel of timing and execution; kudos to director Webb, who previously helmed music videos for everyone from Green Day to Jesse McCartney.

Webb sprinkles little flights of fancy throughout his film, which is presented in non-linear form -- we bounce around the 500 days of the title as an on-screen graphic tells us which numbered day we're about to see. Tom doesn't break the fourth wall as Alvey Singer did in "Annie Hall," but the tone is much the same, right down to the sudden appearance of animated characters in one scene. Tom's movie-theater daydream, in which he imagines his life as an Ingmar Bergman film, is the film's most obvious nod to Woody Allen, and one of its funniest scenes.

The film also employs a narrator, which by turns feels just right and totally wrong. It goes right in the beginning; When we first meet Summer, we have no reason to like her other than the fact she is played by an actress as lovable as Zooey Deschanel. But the narrator basically tells us we're supposed to go ga-ga for her, so we just go with it -- much like how Tom just goes with it. It's not until later that we (and Tom) realize the situation is not so ideal.

After that scene, the narrator seems superfluous. After the movie, Sean Tuohey and I talked about whether a film that employs the fanciful techniques that "(500) Days of Summer" employs needs a narrator; would the audience accept the split-screen scene or the Bergman homage if they didn't feel like they were being told a story? We even speculated that the entire movie was built around that split-screen sequence, and that the narrator was created just to pull that scene off.

The film's greatest miscalculation is its ending, a scene that plays on auto-pilot, and which ends with a real groaner of a joke. The film's big message? "There are plenty of fish in the sea." Yep, that's about as deep as it goes.

Gordon-Levitt's big scene has Tom, a greeting-card writer, delivering a diatribe against his profession. He says that the sentiments within the cards are as phony and unrealistic as those in the movies, and that they give people false hope. I thought this would be where "(500) Days" finally announces itself as a satire of Hollywood romantic comedies, but the neatly wrapped-up finale pretty much goes against everything Tom says in the scene.

It's no "Annie Hall," and it's certainly no "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but "(500) Days of Summer" is a promising debut for Webb and a fine showcase for two of our best young actors. It would make a great double-bill with "Adventureland," another tale of young romance that hits all the indie grace notes, but which ends in a much more satisfying manner.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen (500) Days of Summer yet, but I wonder if this movie uses a narrator to accomplish what Woody Allen did by talking to the camera in Annie Hall?