August 27, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Director: Marc Webb
95 min


Los Angeles, the present. The film is shown in non-chronological order, but this synopsis will be presented chronologically. Tom, a twentysomething who works at a greetings card company falls for Summer, his boss’s new assistant. They discover a mutual love of The Smiths and enjoy a work karaoke evening, but Summer has reservations about love, in contrast to Tom’s blind optimism. Tom and Summer become closer. Despite her interest in only being friends, they begin a casual romantic relationship, although Tom wants something more meaningful.

Tom and Summer watch ‘The Graduate’ in a cinema, after which she tells Tom they should stop seeing each other. Tom becomes depressed and skips work, which concerns his boss and friends. Tom and Summer meet again at the wedding of a colleague, where they dance. Summer invites Tom to a party she’s hosting. At this party, Tom discovers Summer is engaged. Tom skips work once more and begins to drink heavily. He returns to work after a few days only to quit; his illusions about love having been shattered. Tom decides to resurrect his architecture career, which he had previously suspended. He meets Summer by accident. She reveals his ideas about love were right all the time but she was never as sure about their relationship as she is about her marriage. At a job interview, Tom is interested in a fellow applicant and then asks her on a date. Her name is Autumn.


Presenting itself as a romantic comedy with a difference, ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is an independent film that offers a refreshing, unique look at love amongst twentysomethings. As the warm tones of the narrator makes clear in the opening moments of the film, it’s a story of boy meets girl, where boy falls in love but girl doesn’t. It stays true to its word too, rejecting what would be the simple, crowd-pleasing tactic of reuniting the two lovers. Once the relationship fizzles out, it’s dead for good, despite what ‘boy’ would like. Equally distinctive is the format in which the film is presented to us; non-chronological, jumping between different days and aspects of the relationship according to Tom’s own subjective memories. And Tom’s memory is certainly shown to be unreliable in a couple of key scenes, such as one in a record store, that are replayed from a more impartial perspective. Where Tom never noticed disharmony between himself and Summer before, it now becomes more apparent. He was just too blind to notice.

Much like most American independent films, which are barely definable as ‘independent’ anyway since they’re produced by subsidiaries of major studios, ‘(500) Days of Summer’ struggles to completely break free of the shackles of the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. This is a film that wants to succeed, that wants to opt-in, that follows much of the same template of films that it would turn its nose up at. Although the usual resolution doesn’t take place, it’s still feel-good entertainment, topped off by an ending that seems hopelessly neat and contrived. Tom has spent the film in love and when it doesn’t work out, his life threatens to fall apart. Yet Summer returns again to convince him he was right all along, and even more daft, Tom meets what might be the real love of his life in a job interview; hardly the best preparation for either. Of course you could guess his potential girlfriend’s name a mile off. And then the whole process that the film exists within begins again. The film could have taken a bit more of a risk and avoided clichĂ©s so easily, but American independent films don’t want to stay in their ghetto and chase the dollar quite shamelessly at times.

What will either sit easily or uneasily, depending on one’s perspective, is the film’s quite open and brazen attempt to ramp up its own ‘hip’ factor. One of many issues with ‘Garden State’ (2004), another ‘independent’ film obsessed by its own cool, was the excruciating scene in which Natalie Portman told Zach Braff to listen to The Shins and that they’d change his life. Did the makers of this film learn from how embarrassing this was handled? Instead, they’re over-concerned with demonstrating at every corner, using none too subtle indicators, just how trendy Tom and Summer are. This starts with their awkward mutual appreciation of The Smiths (surely every college kid knows The Smiths, right?), Tom’s casual wear of Joy Division and The Clash t-shirts and his singing of The Pixies at karaoke. The soundtrack is littered with the kind of tracks that staff at might have dreamt up as their ideal film soundtrack. It’s obviously reflective of the demographic the film is aiming itself at but it just seems so focus group driven at times. One wonders whether the use of Hall and Oates for a post-coital triumphant dance routine by Tom (which is a nice aesthetic touch incidentally) is meant to be ironic, because this track certainly surpasses the singer-songwriter by numbers drivel of Regina Spektor.

These criticisms might give the impression that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ isn’t a worthwhile film, but far from it. It’s mostly very entertaining indeed and there’ll be plenty of males similar to Tom who empathise with what he’s going through. The examination of male insecurity and self-absorption is akin to that of ‘High Fidelity’ (2000) and it’s a comparison I’m sure the film makers will probably accept and perhaps even welcome. One might suggest that we don’t see much of Summer’s experience of the relationship but the film’s deliberately subjective, with what we imagine to be the ‘truth’ open to scrutiny at all times. There’s a worry the depiction of Summer might be unfair but I don’t see that to be the case. She’s upfront and honest; it’s Tom who misinterprets gestures. The acknowledgement of the woman who inspired the film in the opening credits, with the epithet ‘bitch’ is presumably meant to be amusing but might, in the eyes of some, underline attitudes towards gender politics in the film. Early reviews of the film have so far been mostly very positive. I can’t share that enthusiasm. It’s often very sweet and the two leads are adorable, but there’s something quite calculated and cynical about it; plus it’s hardly as off-beat orcool as it would like to imagine.


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