(500) Days of Summer

(Originally published on the Examiner in July 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)

Punningly, the title is a winking reference to Tom Hansen’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) girlfriend, rather ludicrously named Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Appropriately then - and look elsewhere if you don't want the ending spoiled - the film’s own seasonal mood is rather autumnal, focusing as it does on the decline and expiration of a “quirky” romance. The movie also anticipates and tacitly acknowledges the death of the very hip/quirky/indie aesthetic that its own contemporary success would seem to vindicate. Just as “indie” trendiness hits saturation point in the media, the movie whispers to anyone who’s listening that the show is over and the queen is dead – the movie is an allegory for its own demise (and that of its audience) and even more surprisingly, an apologia for such.

Only after seeing the film does this become clear; after all, the marketing campaign won’t tell you a thing about the story or the message – not even a high-concept hook to get you in theaters. Instead there are constant pictures of Zooey & Joseph making googly eyes at each other, Smiths-saturated TV spots, and self-conscious affectations in the titles and graphics (normally indulged in those ubiquitous crayon/pencil-drawn titles, here reserved for the songlike parenthesis around “500”).

In other words, the ads focus purely on “the look” and (500) Days of Summer comes to seem like nothing more than a culmination of the past decade’s “indie” development – a move away from actual independence (like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, this film is thoroughly enmeshed in Hollywood casting and financing) towards signifiers of "indieness." All that remain for public consumption are the soundtrack, Zooey’s adorable hair ribbon, Joseph’s hip messenger bag and especially his big black headphones (admittedly a relief after those twerpy white earbuds) – all of which quirky outsiders-cum-insiders in the audience are supposed to identify and identify with.

But the movie is more intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful, than its empty viral promotions would suggest – even contradictory of the adverts. One has to see the whole film through to arrive at this moment of truth, and one has to ignore the various flaws and shortcomings along the way to recognize what the movie is actually offering, but once discerned an at least grudging admiration emerges for the anti-romantic aspects of the story. The narrative flashes back and forth among the 500 days of Summer and Tom’s romance, during which it becomes clear that Tom is a romantic and Summer is non-committal, something she admits and he chooses to ignore. Ultimately, she dumps him and he comes to accept that their wispy, whimsical, and trendy “connection” existed almost exclusively in his own mind.

That the film is superficial, “sensitive” without any penetrating insight, and stylistically dressed up with no real place to go ultimately becomes a case of form imitating content (presumably unintentional, but compelling nonetheless): just like the couple it presents, the movie is flat and limp beneath its quirky, ethereal surface. That the actual film recognizes, condemns, and moves beyond the very scene its success is reliant upon is promising (if hypocritical); however, the film can’t capitalize on this maturity as it is too enmeshed in the quirky trappings it sets out to subvert, and its writing and style are too mediocre to truly deliver – either the “indie” goods or the subversion thereof.

This is in spite of some nice touches, like a party conducted in split-screen, the left side showing Tom’s supposedly reasonable explanations of a rapprochement with Summer, while the right displays the disappointing, and ultimately crushing, reality. However, even here the idea remains mostly on the page, as the actual execution does not notably expand on the above description. Contrast with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) – the obvious inspiration for the films’ beginning/end back-forth structure – in which clever ideas also become hilarious, and occasionally moving, scenes (think the subtitled conversation on the rooftop, or the split-screen analysis sessions).

Director Mark Webb has difficulty moving beyond the conceptual toward the textural; the film’s conceits remain just that. The structure does not reveal any telling juxtapositions in beginning and end (it merely exploits a few jarring contrasts within the same location); the set pieces begin with an idea (a musical number after Tom gets laid) but leave it there (TV commercials have done this sort of thing before, and more stylishly - even when the intention was anti-style). The filmmaking is not bad; it's just mediocre.

Meanwhile, the screenwriters (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) pile on half-delivered clich├ęs ripped from earlier offbeat hits like The Royal Tenenbaums (a narrator who pops up haphazardly and offers a pale imitation of Alec Baldwin’s rich voiceover in the opening minutes of Wes Anderson’s classic) and Juno (a precocious girl-guru, in this case closer to six than sixteen). Elsewhere the screenplay indulges in the most tired cliches, worn-out parodies of parodies vis a vis European art cinema (a mime carrying a balloon, yet another spoof of The Seventh Seal) - where, ironically, many of this movie's own watered-down stylistic tics originated. The film seems genuinely uncomfortable with the offbeat vibe it initially cultivates.

Furthermore, but on that same note, the movie has a surprising but telling alternative to the strained and already half-square quirkiness of its characters (consistently placed in front of corporate logos culminating in a “playful” visit to Ikea, in a scene which is either not as subversive as it intends to be or more discordant than it knows). When Summer marries an offscreen beau and Tom combs his hair and puts on a suit, images speak louder than words: though she's supposedly found true love, and he's ostensibly pursuing his dream job as an architect, the visuals recall standard images of Hollywood success: glossy, upscale, any quirks finally slicked over. The movie can't imagine any other viable alternative to the (thankfully exposed) limitations of earnest quirkiness: genuine rebellion or even detachment from the expectations of the characters' generation and media image don't even enter the picture.

Still, connotations of selling out aside, the conclusion at least brings maturity to the film’s characters, a sense that they've outgrown the cutesy perpetual adolesence which Garden State, among others, wallows in (until the last twenty minutes of the film, Tom and Summer's looks and behavior have conformed to a junior high student’s conception of the young adult world). A scene at another couple’s wedding has a nice rueful and elegiac tone, and Deschanel strikes a rare moment of truth when reuniting with Tom on a park bench: a flicker in her expression suggests to the viewer that there may be a parallel film going on here, and a more interesting one at that - her side of the story, perhaps wiser and deeper than Tom’s. A brief clip of The Graduate comes off nicely though it inevitably makes one long for the earlier film. (500) Days' statement that Tom grossly misread the ending of the 1967 classic is just about the best bit of characterization in the movie, for better or worse.

In the end, despite its overall weakness, the movie lingers - there's something at work here, even if the film itself doesn't really work (audiences seem smitten with it, but it's hard to see how the infatuation withstands closer and more long-term scrutiny; again, parallels with the subject onhand). And one can’t fault (500) Days for acknowledging that Nick and Norah's playlist won't bring them together, nor will listening to the Shins change your life (in this case, it’s the Smiths, admittedly a better band but surprisingly under-used given the constant name-dropping). As the "indie" movement hits saturation point in the mainstream, (500) Days arrives, perhaps inadvertently, to bury rather than praise the milieu; to sound a death knell for a certain type of cultural artifact.

Even if (500) Days’ buzz inspires a cluster of knock-offs (sprouting up from Hollywood studios’ faux-indie arms like the multiple Zooeys in one of the film’s ads), we’ve clearly reached saturation point with this particular manifestation of the zeitgeist. Trendspotters must start to look elsewhere for the new and edgy – perhaps even something with real edge, necessary now that the bubble (which fostered quirk culture, along with other manifestations of the ostrich-head-in-the-sand Bush years) has burst.

Summer’s over; bring on the fall.

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant review of a mediocre film, MovieMan! All the right points. My own observations:

    1. The film reveals its own flaws. Whatever gimmick Webb does at the editing table is negated by the script itself. After a point the chronology is inevitably set straight and the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl and boy-wins-girl path is set back on track. Bad editing pattern I would say.
    2. The cheap potshots at art (both in the art gallery and at the cinema hall) reveals how hypocritical all this is. In the crucial scene, when Tom lashes out against the pop culture for its shaping of people's perceptions about love and beauty, he doe snot realize that the film he is in does the same even when professing the opposite.
    3. One can actually trace back all of the film's attention-calling choices to the moment they might have been created. "How about we split the screen and ..." "How about we shuffle the screenplay a bit and...". I think that's not a good thing.

    But there are some brilliant lines in the film, of course.

    "As the "indie" movement hits saturation point in the mainstream, (500) Days arrives, perhaps inadvertently, to bury rather than praise the milieu; to sound a death knell for a certain type of cultural artifact." - I only wish this were true. Bring back the true indie - THE UNDERGROUND!

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  2. JAFB, enjoying your trip through the past weeks - keep 'em coming!

    One of these days, I may repost comments I received on the Examiner, which I saved. One of them was for this film and to date it's the only slam I've received for one of my reviews. Basically calls me soulless and accuses me of not liking the Smiths to boot. I responded at length but of course the commentator was a hit-and-runner and never returned to defend himself.

    A magazine recently ran a cover asking, in a mock-up of the famous Time cover from the 60s "Is Indie Dead?" Their thesis was that it's become so ubiquitous that it was time to either redefine the term or re-term the definition. This has some overlap with my thoughts here (and elsewhere) but not entirely. They also define the term almost purely in terms of music and take a while to get the current image of indie, namely the twee, cozy, ultimately "safe" aesthetic.

    I'd welcome a renewed underground but also a fresh cultural approach which neither eschews the mainstream nor cowtows to it, but rather redefines it the way the 60s counterculture did. Marginalization and fragmentation, imposed and self-willed, have lasted too long.

    And finally...death to the word "indie" itself! I was actually going to write an Examiner piece about this, pending a name change from "Indie Movie Examiner" to "Independent Movie Examiner." The word indie is so self-consciously quirky, twerpy, and wimpy. It reminds me of those aesthetically unappealing, stamp-size ads which used to bug me when I was a kid, eagerly flipping through the pages of the Boston Globe looking at the big posters for Jurassic Park or The Fugitive or (next summer) The Mask. Granted, many of these ads were for movies which actually turned out to be quite good (often better than the big-budget flicks I drooled over) but if my taste has changed, I still wish independent cinema wasn't so acquiescent in its marginalization. Think big, this is cinema! True, the dirt-cheap talkfests of the 90s are over but the overly stylized subculture movies of the 00s still haven't quite broken out of the ghetto.

    Anyway, lots to talk about here, I'll try and save it for an upcoming SNY post which features that magazine cover.

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

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