Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 12 May 2009
Source Fox Searchlight 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
Director Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer was my happiest surprise at IFFB. It echoes 2008’s likable romcom Definitely Maybe to a small degree – it’s got a similar maturity, a nonlinear storyline, and there’s even a precocious little girl (who is, thankfully, used with discretion) – but 500 Days does Definitely Maybe more than one better; I laughed with this film harder, felt for its characters more deeply, and left higher on the movies than I ever expected to. The film has more of an edge than your typical romcom (The closest thing to a “meet cute” in this picture consists of one of the leads singing a snatch of The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” to the other in an elevator: “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.”), and it deserves to either transcend the romcom label altogether or better still, to reclaim it for the Annie Halls and High Fidelitys of the world. It deserves a place among those invaluable films that have reminded us that, cinematically speaking, love doesn’t necessarily stink.
500 Days of Summer is a story of boy meets girl that avoids a number of the usual traps. The boy, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s somewhat starry-eyed Tom, and the girl, Zooey Deschanel’s more grounded Summer, don’t feel like types. Tom may be a bit adrift in his twenties, but he isn’t your bog-standard slacker type, and Summer blessedly avoids becoming a bland reiteration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, resisting Tom’s compulsion to idealize her (and this despite the sense one gets that Webb’s camera is as infatuated with Deschanel as Tom is with Summer.) And while its charming that the film tweaks gender stereotypes a bit – it’s Tom, not Summer, who is constantly dishing about the relationship with friends, and Summer, not Tom, who turns up in her significant other’s apartment all angsty and John-Cusack-dripping-wet – it’s better still that Tom and Summer feel like individuals. They don’t need to represent anyone but themselves, and that’s certainly a step ahead of the “they’re all the same” attitude that permeates too many films about relationships.
I worried that the film would lapse into irritating quirky-indie territory, but Webb generally avoids getting too precious (I’ll even forgive Tom and Summer’s romantic idyll through an IKEA, just this once.), and he’s also a refreshingly playful storyteller, tossing in everything from a sporadic, omnipotent voiceover narrator to faux-documentary interviews to footage in the style of an instructional video. (There’s also an initially cute spoof of French cinema that loses a little steam when it tangles up its Godard with its Bergman.) Webb is a veteran director of music videos (including a gorgeous clip created for Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity”), a format that can provide a fine platform for filmmakers to experiment, and he has carried that try-something sensibility over to his first feature. It’s easy to roll with the loopy narrative punches when you’re having this much fun.
But without the strong performances from Webb’s able young cast, 500 Days wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Erstwhile indie-pop debutante Deschanel makes us believe in the engaging but occasionally enigmatic Summer, and Levitt, an actor who’s been in the spotlight since childhood, has a wonderful hint of weariness here, a slight hangdog quality that invites you to root for him to (please, please, please) get what he wants this time. He’s also a remarkably game performer, pulling off the romance’s dizzying highs (including a bonkers dance sequence) with breezy aplomb. The leads are also surrounded by a fine collection of supporting players, notably Geoffrey Arend as Tom’s close friend McKenzie.
“It’s love; it’s not Santa Claus,” Tom tells Summer, and the film ultimately echoes his sentiment quite richly. 500 Days is a picture that believes in love, but it also understands how messy relationships are—they aren’t always magic, and they certainly aren’t always forever. Webb’s film is joyful and hopeful without being naïve, a welcome arrival for bruised but unbowed romantics everywhere.
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