Guest Review: Marc Webb's 500 Days of Summer
by Alex Billington
November 25, 2008
There's a little indie film called 500 Days of Summer from music video director Marc Webb that has already nestled itself in the hearts of a handful of moviegoers. Our favorite indie studio, Fox Searchlight, is distributing it but it's not out yet. However, the film has already test screened a few times in Southern California, earning so much appreciation that some fans have already seen it two or three times. One of those fans decided to drop by with a review, so as a way of introducing everyone to what is sure to become one of next year's big indie hits, I decided to feature it today. Even if you have no clue what 500 Days of Summer is about, you'll definitely want to read this - I'm certain you'll be anxious to see it by the end.
Why 500 Days of Summer is the best movie I've screened this year isn't the cast, made up primarily of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, or the tag line ("A Man Who Believes in Love Falls for a Woman Who Very-Much Doesn't") or even the online chatter falsely describing it as a "musical" (which I think we could always use more of anyway). No, why it's the best has more to do with character than with setup; more feeling than exposition. The creators of the movie, first-timer's all around, understand these people (beyond surfaced who-they-are, what-they-want, and how-they-get-it explanations, which dominate the rom-com genre) and, with an assured look at the dating styles of today, created a movie which comments and condemns the current idea of love, sex, and friendship. Oh, and it's really funny.
Let me back up a bit: written with Starbucks-fueled, sappy pop-song admiration as well as with glances over Charlie Kaufman's shoulder, the film jumps throughout the relationship between Thomas (Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Deschanel), which lasts about as long as the title suggests. Certain key dates are setup at the start: when a major break up happens, when they meet, what's at the end of day 498. Cue cards keep us aware of not just what's happening in a certain scene, but also what it means in the context of their relationship. Told in a backwards-then-forwards way, we may get to see the 268th day before we see the 1st. We may see a big fight before we see them meet. In this way, it's telling two stories for the admission price of one: Thomas attempting to live without Summer, and Thomas and Summer first meeting.
Sound like a lot is going on? Despite that, the complex structure underscores a simple plot; how the movie deals with the awkward crescendo up to dating as well as the awkward rebound dates following the fallout is where it's strongest. In retelling the film to someone, they asked why we need yet another romantic comedy. My response was that this one is our romantic comedy, it's about us and our generation. Summer willing to have every aspect of a relationship with Thomas except the "title" is believable to me. Thomas' immediate attraction and second-thought dismissal of Summer is believable. Her bedside secrets and apartment she never fully moves into (get it?), his hyper-romantic view of love, her quickness for intimacy, his over analyzing every aspect - all of this is believable because it is of product of these times, where dating can be easily eschewed into so many categories (going out, dating, seeing each other, just friends and so on). Why the movie works as well as it does is that it doesn't take sides in that struggle: neither Thomas or Summer is right, just as neither is wrong, because relationships aren't that simple.
What is that simple, though, is people. Both lead performances are solid: Levitt's puppy-dogged face and heart-on-his-sleeve demeanor, Deschanel's ability to seem upfront and mysterious with the same look, all with a palpably understandable relationship at it's center. Told from Thomas' perspective, the film is based less in reality and more in his emotions - the day after a triumph, don't you just feel like everyone is smiling at you? Or after a breakup, don't you continually see their face everywhere you look? The supporting cast (Matthew Gray Gubler, Geoffrey Arend) all provide interesting, if less realized, aspects for Thomas to bounce off of, the notable exception being Rachel, his little sister, played by with grace and wisdom by Chloe Moretz - who's dating advice and language continually runs against her young age, which would be gimmicky if she were in the film more. Luckily she steals only the few scenes she is in.
In lieu of good guys and bad guys, needless infidelities, frivolous external conflicts and scenes that talk too much (the movie has a few, to be fair), and instead of characters who learn tidy life lessons at its end, 500 Days of Summer works well as an ode to these easily confusing times. Written by Nathanial S.