Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock from the Sun") and Zooey Deschanel (The Good Girl) have come a long way since their first dramatic pairing in Manic, a volatile and engaging picture. If you would've told me several years ago that they would be the lead actors in an independent quirky romance generating a lot of excitement, I would've probably scoffed at your statement and merely hoped for the best. Now, however, it sounds more like a dream pairing following the two starlets' ascendancy over the past few years, and 500 Days of Summer is the culmination of their blossoming talent. Written by two first-time screenwriters, Scoot Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and directed by freshman film director Marc Webb, it's a surprisingly snappy, classy take on romance and heartbreak, bringing fistfuls of charm and emotional whimsy to the table. Because of all that, I absolutely love this film.
It's not, however, a love story, as our narrator tells us, but more of a reflection on how things went sour between Tom (Gordon-Levitt), an architect turned greeting card writer, and Summer (Deschanel), the flighty assistant in his office with an inborn sense of good fortune and natural magnetism. As to be expected, the film takes us through select snippets through their 500 days of interaction, emphasizing the bright highs and rock-bottom lows as a morose Tom regurgitates the story to his friends -- an odd bunch to be giving him relationship advice, comprised of an off-kilter woman repellent (Geoffrey Arend) and a guy who's been in a relationship since he was 18 (Michael Gray Gruber) -- and his younger sister. He reflects on their first meeting, when he discovered his love for her, dealing with her commitment issues, and how it all tumbled down due to her stubborn capriciousness. But he also reflects on the lasting memories: their view of Los Angeles from a park bench, a stumble through IKEA where they lightheartedly mock domestic lifestyle, and a turning-point rendezvous by the copy machine.
Director Webb doesn't tell us this story in linear fashion, instead triggering memories like a stream of firecrackers going off in Tom's head with day markers attached to each. He doesn't annotate every memory day-for-day, since our memories don't work that way, but instead remembers the morning after he and Summer first made love -- illustrated by a gleeful, smile-inducing musical number -- and ties it together with a more recent memory of him at his most depressed as he arrives at his office one day. Visual cues like that one are scattered throughout Marc Webb's picture, handled in a fashion that feels somehow recognizable to anyone who has felt that broken-hearted ache. That's partly a glimpse at cinematographer Eric Steelberg's outstanding work, which carries over a similar boldness of visuals from his work on Juno into a collage of eye-catching poeticism. Several other moments communicate with us directly through their meaning, like watching Tom and Summer enjoying a movie, then immediately after we watch Tom sulk in a theater alone with an abstract "suffering" arthouse film a la Ingmar Bergman playing in front of him. And it's all a string of identifiable elements, from the transition of a quirky laugh into a piercing cackle and a birthmark changing shapes like a cloud in the sky. Many of us have been there, and know where the writers are coming from.
Of course, there's the very good possibility that 500 Days of Summer could've been a complete wash of silliness and gallivanting on the laurels of independent oddity, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel never let us wander into that mentality. Gordon-Levitt has always been a strong character actor, but he's really garnered attention as a dark and brooding leading man following startling good turns in The Lookout and Mysterious Skin. He scales the brooding intensity back as Tom, yet still painting his moroseness with broad strokes of emotional depth, while also harking back to his experience in comedy for the physical humor. I was surprised at exactly how humorous he could be even when he's moping around, conflicting our feelings when we're suffering through the Linus-like cloud above his head. Deschanel is equally as impressive as Summer, tapping into her signature wide-eyed disposition to craft a well-pitched, unconventional "hippie chick". She somewhat makes us understand Tom's fawning at the scatterbrained yet alluring Summer, but it's the way Deschanel plays against Gordon-Levitt's charm that really make them a delicious duo.
Their dynamic helps to set the film apart, but it's the endlessly clever writing from first-timers Weber and Neustadter that really shapes 500 Days of Summer into a wealth of tangible, identifiable emotion. They're fully aware of how they want their film to move, how it leaps from time period to time period, and what makes Tom and Summer tick. Tom's built into a fighter of a character with an achilles' heel, and Summer into a character that grasps realness about wanting to pursue a "no string attached" relationship, and there's something resonant on both a modern and classic level about their interaction. It's obvious that the writers have taken experiences from their own life, from glimpses into their office beating-around-the-bush and a booze-fueled discussion about the fabric of love to the pinnacle connective moment between Tom and Summer in her apartment, and it's like watching flashes of our own memories -- or, at least, similar ones -- unfolding before our very eyes. Cynics will surely have a difficult time seeing eye-to-eye with their script because it lives and breathes with an aware, aggressive heart, and I really, really like that about it.
One moment really stands out in 500 Days of Summer, the one that really hooked me. Further on, as we've gotten to know Tom and Summer a bit and have a grasp on both their chemistry and the ways that they butt heads, a split-screen sequence arises that separates the image between Tom's "Expectation" on one side and the "Reality" of what occurred on the other during a party sequence late in their relationship. Everything remains the same in each, from Tom's trollop up a stairwell to the way a patio is fanned out. He gives her the same book as a gift in each, she wears the same gown in each, yet the differences in their demeanor -- and the ways in which they treat each other -- speak volumes about what each character really wants. That moment, showing off a divide between Tom's brain and the reality of his miniature Hell, is something special to behold; we've all had that happen, where our expectations are shattered by the reality of the situation, and Marc Webb has given a pitch-perfect rendering of the gut-wrenching feeling that results.
But 500 Days of Summer isn't completely about heartache. It's also about the good times people have in relationships, the stuff they'll remember once they've broken apart from someone they care deeply for. Within that, there's also plenty of humor -- lots of good, deep-seated humor. That mostly stems from the chic verbose within the script, one that knows the line between originality and idiosyncrasy. Alright, yeah, there's a scene where a guy sings to the heavens as he's walking to work the day after he gets laid, and yeah, everyone gives him high-fives and cheeky grins before they start to dance with him, but that's exactly the style of rose colored glasses many people adorn in that scenario -- whether they want to admit it or not. Marc Webb's picture gave me quite a suckerpunch because of that level of charm, a mix of fanciful daydreaming, potent soul-searching, and of kneejerk laughs and sentimental song and dance. It might not end in wine and roses and it might not be a love story, but it's certainly a story about the real mechanics of love that ends with everything in the right place for this particular tale. Sublime.
Note: This Blu-ray seems to have a few compatibility issues, as it didn't properly load up in JVC's XV-BP1 Blu-ray player with up-to-date firmware. It boots up to the title screen beyond Fox's previews, but the intricacy of the menu design apparently locks up the system and doesn't allow for any of the menu options to play. The disc did, however, work flawlessly in Sony's Playstation 3, so this might simply be a handshake issue with select players.
Video and Audio:
500 Days of Summer arrives from Fox in a wonderfully presented 2.35:1 AVC rendering of the film for this Blu-ray. The cinematography shifts around to boxy 16mm, black and white shots a handful of times, but it's mostly a very colorfully-rendered presentation that closes in on a wide array of crisp, fluctuating blues and tans that stay solid with plenty of impressive pop. Framed shots of Zooey and Joseph in an elevator, at a coffee shop, and so on and so forth, stay steady and properly contrasted with highly accurate coloring. It's not a terribly dense film in regards to texture, but several elements in close-ups and set design let a few finely-etched elements peak through -- cloth textures, close-ups, and set decorations. Some of the contrast grows a bit too dark and drinks up some detail while the grain grows just a bit heavier than natural film quality, but on this whole we're working with a highly pleasing and natural image.
As expected from a film of this type, 500 Days of Summer is a very front-heavy, dialogue-driven film, so the DTS HD Master Audio track mostly emphasizes crispness of the actors' line delivery and the musical cues. Very subtle sound effects trail off into the rear channels, like a slight echo in an art museum and the clanking of dinnerware in restaurants/bars. However, the prevailing element from the back remains the film's wispy, luscious soundtrack, which sound brilliant from all directions. Verbal clarity, the most important ingredient, remains top-shelf from beginning to end as it bounces off the sound design with just the right amount of ambiance, building into an audio track that's both natural and fitting for the picture it accompanies. English Descriptive Audio, Spanish, French, and Portuguese 5.1 tracks also come on the disc, along with English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Thai subtitles.
Director Marc Webb, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and writers Michael Weber and Scoot Neustadter get together for a feature-length discussion, and it's a pretty good one. They're all clearly very comfortable with one another, as the discussion definitely veers away from the typical backslapping "so and so was excellent" dialogue. The guys discuss utilizing pre-war architecture alone for the Los Angeles shoots, usage of the same building for both Tom's apartment and the office, as well as reusing the date change sound effects throughout the film. They also get in a few heated debates over whether Summer would've really made some of the decisions that she made, as well as Gordon-Levitt having a "Christian Bale" moment on-set. And, of course, they mention on several occasions how great Zooey Deschanel looks.
Not a Love Story: Making of 500 Days of Summer (29:21, HD AVC):
This semi-documentary guides us through the conception and build of Marc Webb's film. It discusses how the producers came across the script and Webb as director, deciding on Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, Zooey Deschanel coming into the picture, and many of the other expected topics. Interview time with the actors and filmmakers blends with behind-the-scenes shots and clips from the film. The dialogue follows along the typical structure for a piece like this, but the content's a bit better and more earnest than others of its type.
Summer at Sundance (13:46, HD AVC):
Some semi home-video footage chronicles Marc Weber and crew as they take the film to Sundance. Conversations crop up with all of the actors, such as Gordon-Levitt receiving a Sundance shirt at 10 from Robert Redford and an interesting pair of shoes from Webb's childhood.
Conversations with Zooey and Joseph (12:26, SD MPEG-2):
Segmented into several installments, this string of conversations between Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt feel a little forced. However, they also unravel a few interesting tidbits about the two actors and their feeling on their profession, from honing in on emotion to connecting with their characters.
Filmmaking Specials (SD MPEG-2):
This portion of the supplements compiles several installments spread across different channels and mediums in regards to the film. They include elements from a few short snippets in the Behind (500) Days promo series and two pieces from the Fox Movie Channel. Much of the content here repeats most of what we've seen or heard in the commentary and the Making-Of featurette from earlier on the disc.
We've also got a few Audition Tapes for Geoffrey Arend (McKenzie) and Matthew Gray Gubler (Paul),a set of Deleted Scenes (14:42, HD AVC), two Storyboard Sequences with optional Director's Commentary (each one with Storyboards and Storyboard/Scene comparison), and ... drumroll please ... two really great short pieces: The Bank Dance (4:18, SD MPEG-2) sequence scattered online that's directed by Marc Weber and features Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in a musical dance number, and the Mean Cinemash: "Sid and Nancy" (3:28, HD AVC) segment that features the two actors as the iconic rocker couple.
On Disc 2, we've got nothing but a Digital Copy of the film.
As humorous as it is poignant and gleeful, Marc Webb's 500 Days of Summer mixes a well-written and earnest script with two radiant stars to craft a one of the better films of 2009. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel both grab their respective characters and give us a modern, punchy spin on romance and break-up that's surprisingly in-tune with the subtleties of relationships -- and the bittersweet nature of heartbreak. Fox's Blu-ray, though it seems to have a few issues loading in some players, offers the film with strong audiovisual quality and a wealth of supplements, including an insightfully laid-back commentary and a slew of featurettes. It's a great independent flick with just the right actors, director, screenwriters, and music to make it a thoroughly involving experience, one that comes Highly Recommended in this high-definition presentation.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site