Rom-Coms Get a Refreshing Spin in (500) Days of Summer
- 2009 31 Jul
DVD Release Date: December 22, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: July 31, 2009
Rating: PG-13 (for language, sexual material, sexual situations.)
Genre: Romantic Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 95 min.
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Yvette Nicole Brown
The Romantic-Comedy/Drama genre is arguably the most stale in contemporary cinema, so it grabs your attention when a film announces (quite literally, in this case) rather different intentions.
In the opening sequence of (500) Days of Summer, the narrator warns us quite plainly "This is a story of Boy Meets Girl, but you should know up front—this is not a love story." The marketing tweaked that declaration in a more vaguely hopeful way: "This is not a love story. This is a story about love." Yet for such intriguingly subversive goals (and despite occasionally following through on them), this movie is too often reliant on being like so many other rom-coms before it. Sure, it's cute. It's cool. It's even good. But it should be better.
The "Boy" is Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Lookout), a Greeting Card copywriter who's looking for The One. The titular "Summer" is not the season but rather the "Girl" Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel, Elf), a new employee at the card company that Tom instantly knows is the one he's been looking for. The 500 Days of Her are shared, experienced and seen from the perspective of Him. As you might expect (and even hope for), it's an emotional rollercoaster of blissful highs, challenging lows and unexpected turns.
While adherence to Romance genre rules and staples lacks the inspiration of its premise, the movie's refreshing spin is found primarily in first-time director Marc Webb's style. Eschewing the standard high-production gloss, cute/plucky tone and standard linear arc, (500) Days of Summer certainly feels different with its indie aesthetic (a more textured visual; a hipster soundtrack rather than Top 40 pop tunes, etc.) and non-linear structure. The story jumps around within their 500 days together, going back-and-forth between good times and bad (and even beginning at a breakup), using that device to effectively mirror how identical events can feel very different at different times, first early in a relationship (exciting and new) and then later (stagnant and old).
Perhaps the most obvious change to formula here is the gender-reversal twist. The "boy" Tom is a romantic who's ready to dive in while the "girl" Summer is the cynic with commitment issues. Tom is emotionally needy while Summer is emotionally guarded. He's over-reactive; she can be a bit clueless. He needs to know "where they're at"; she avoids such definitions (likely out of fear). He's even given the comic-relief best friends to sulk with while she's content keeping a surface distance with those around her. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel wisely stick to their natural masculine and feminine qualities, respectively (he has a natural, cool ease while she is bubbly and vivacious), generating an idyllic chemistry that is effortless and alive, with the glow of a modern-day Rock Hudson/Doris Day.
Yet even within that fresh take, we see a movie that too often falls back and relies on archetypal genre clichés. Too-clever-by-half scripted banter and gossipy emotional venting between friends—even if between men instead of women—is still too-clever-by-half. Contrived moments (Tom actually talks to himself in a mirror—who does that?) are still contrived, and stock characters (like a cute but wise-beyond-her-years grade-school girl whose sole function is to provide Tom sage relationship advice) still exist solely to fill a function rather than be genuine, real people.
If the movie's goal were simply to be another product of the studio machine, all of this would be forgivable (even if not necessarily bearable). That it aspires to something more authentic requires more thought, effort and nonconformity than Webb and his screenwriters are able to provide. It's refreshing and even effective to see all of the chances they take stylistically (indeed, the movie has its share of inspired moments), but for a romance that boasts the courage to not be your standard love story, well, it's not enough.
But thankfully, it doesn't pull its punches when it really counts. Certainly one of the film's advantages is that, despite fidelity to formula, its very premise maintains a very real (and rare) sense of suspense and mystery. We really don't know how this is going to end. It legitimately could go either way. That—coupled with the endearing chemistry of Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel along with Webb's creative flourishes—effectively makes up for the film's typical beats.
Best of all, it ends strong. Having the courage to stick to its core thematic audacity, the final narrative stretch transcends the film's conventional faults rather than falling prey to them. A late (and great) split-screen sequence that mirrors in real-time Tom's expectations for a party at Summer's apartment with the reality of what actually happens is not only an ingenious storytelling device, it rings powerfully true in all-too-identifiable ways. We've all lived this. We've all felt this. We have a dream of how something is going to unfold, and then those dreams are dashed at every moment. It hurts, it's real, and it's a defining moment.
I won't reveal how this relationship resolves other than to say, tonally, it's a mixture of the entire film; on one hand it really has the chutzpah to stick to its philosophical guns, yet doesn't quite have the guts to end when it should. Still, while it lacks the backbone to completely buck convention, its view of relationships and the realities of falling in love are remarkably honest. (500) Days of Summer doesn't completely break from its genre as it initially promises, but it definitely stands out within it—and for that not only is it worthwhile, it's actually kind of memorable.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Drinking alcohol (beer, vodka). Moments of inebriation.
- Language/Profanity: A fairly full range of profanities, although they're occasionally used rather than consistently. The most common is the "s"-word. The Lord's name is used in vain on a few occasions. One use of the "f"-word. In one scene, the word "penis" is repeated loudly in a public park. Also some sexually suggestive references (see below).
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A slang reference to oral sex is made, as are explicit "second and third base-ish" type of references. A porn video is briefly heard (just panting) but not seen, and it is suggested that a couple re-enacts it behind a shower curtain in another brief moment, played for comedy. The terms "rack" and "whore" are used. A photograph of a bulging penis underneath tight jeans is briefly seen.
- Violence/Other: A brief fist-fight.
Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla. He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture.
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