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(500) Days of Summer

Fox // PG-13 // December 22, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted December 18, 2009 | E-mail the Author
You should know upfront that this is not a love story: I was uncharmed by (500) Days of Summer, a rocky rehash of better romantic comedies (lots will tell you Annie Hall, but it's more When Harry Met Sally), with the occasional spurts of directorial flair that feel, despite occasional wit and strong execution, like desperate attempts to cover up the fact that everything and nothing is happening all at once. Maybe it's just personal taste. Every year, the public seems to go nuts for a studio "independent" that I just can't stand (i.e. Juno and Little Miss Sunshine) and this is no different. Days is a pandering, calculated piece of entertainment that works to trick the viewer into thinking they're watching a movie much cleverer than it actually is, and I'm sure Fox Searchlight has their Oscar Lotto card staked on it.

Take the title, for instance: (500) Days of Summer. The film tracks the budding (and wilting) romantic tension between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a relationship that lasts exactly five hundred days. Even this innocuous bit of cutesy cleverness nags at me like an unscratchable itch. There's no rounding here. A good title would be both informative and thematically relevant; instead, five hundred days is an exact science, for no real reason than to have a title that rolls off the tongue. Thankfully, the length of time isn't the hook, it's that Tom is a firm believer in true love and Summer isn't, but this is where the movie starts intruding on well-worn territory. The roles were the opposite in 1989 -- Billy Crystal's Harry was the realistic, spontaneous one and Meg Ryan's Sally was the slightly starry-eyed planner, but the two concepts, at their hearts, are the same: Can one character's ideal overcome the other, or is it possible for the two schools of thought to coexist?

After Brick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shot up the list of actors I wanted to keep my eye on, and Zooey Deschanel played a major part in making Elf a surprisingly wonderful movie. Both of these actors are among the most likable and talented people working in Hollywood; if you'd told me at the beginning of this year that I wouldn't enjoy a romantic comedy starring these two actors, I wouldn't have believed it, but here it is. The film doesn't seem quite right for Gordon-Levitt's set of skills (I wouldn't say he's overacting but more that he's overinvested compared to the film's tone) and it doesn't have much for Deschanel to do (she's almost better playing a similar role in the fun-but-disposable Yes Man because she's clearly elevating the role rather than saddled with it). Their performances aren't a total waste -- Gordon-Levitt illustrates puppy love perfectly and is excellent during a musical sequence that charms in spite of itself (more below), and Deschanel exudes natural charisma. Even I'd admit that, above all, I just naturally want to see the two find happiness together.

Still, I wanted more out of their relationship, and the lack of "more" can be attributed to the screenplay by Michael Weber and Scott Newstator. I understand on a basic level where Tom is coming from -- what guy wouldn't want a girl like Summer, especially as embodied by Deschanel? -- and again, Gordon-Levitt plays the early infatuation well; he frequently looks like he's just been sideswiped by a wave of heart-fluttering happiness. However, in the short 95 minutes provided, the movie never effectively illustrates how the bond between them is so full and unique that the viewer can keep sharing Tom's belief that she's the one when things go south. We need to stand in Tom's shoes, because at a certain point, if the audience doesn't share his sentiment, Tom becomes depressing and mopey, a sad-sack who can't let go of the past and move on with his life. Admittedly, the movie wants to make a point that I'll avoid emphasizing in a spoiler-free review, but even in an opening scene where Tom's smashing plates, the message is already clear. The movie pours salt in this wound (starting in that very scene, no less) by putting its small measure of wisdom in the mind and mouth of his cutesy younger sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz), who is meant to be Wise Beyond Her Years but plays more like a character intended for a 17 or 18-year-old that was changed on a whim when the director saw the actress. Just like Tom's friendships with McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) and Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), Rachel has the ring of a character in a movie rather than a real person, even though Moretz does her best.

Marc Webb's background is in music video direction, and (500) Days of Summer makes you wonder if he left it behind. Clever bits of directorial flair like a split-screen between Tom's vision of how a party will go next to the reality of the situation, or the aforementioned musical number (which includes the best joke in the movie, a film reference that I won't spoil) all fit right into the 3-to-5 minute space that a tragic indie rock song might have occupied, and the rest of the movie is both designer and anonymous. Webb and his two screenwriters have also implemented a useless non-linear structure that amounts to cinematic wheel-spinning. In many movies, rearranged timelines are already the definition of busy work, and (500) Days doesn't even try and suggest what the audience is supposed to be getting out of it. I can almost guarantee that I and even viewers who enjoyed the movie would feel exactly the same if the film was in chronological order, but I guess someone was set on earning an imaginary gold star.

At the very least, (500) Days of Summer is ambitious, aiming to tell an elaborate, ups-and-downs story that most people can relate to but is rarely depicted on screen. Unfortunately, it's too infatuated with its own execution, throwing down references to The Smiths and Sid and Nancy as if the filmmakers are challenging lesser audience members to plead ignorance so they can scoff them out of the theater. Right at the very beginning, when the film identifies someone -- a real person, even! -- as a "bitch" for a joke, I started distancing myself from the filmmakers' attitude, and even after 90+ minutes that didn't change my mind, the film's painfully placating ending manages to be the sourest note of all, sending the viewer off with nothing less than good old fashioned annoyance. There is a sequence in the movie where Tom and Summer occupy fake kitchens and bedrooms in an IKEA while sarcastically commenting on how nothing works. It's a fitting metaphor for the whole movie: the facade of meaning is there, but when you walk around and push the buttons, it turns out it's just for show.

The DVD, Video and Audio
Fox sent over one of their infamous single-layer DVD-Rs in a paper sleeve, so I can't accurately judge the packaging, video or audio content of this release (I doubt Fox wants me to critique a presentation that devolves into giant blocks every time the scene changes). However, final copy will boast a 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish and French, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, Spanish and French subtitles. I also have to say, the menu is better than the movie itself; it's kind of wonderful in a low-key way that makes me wish I had enjoyed the film.

The Extras
An audio commentary by director Marc Webb, co-writers Michael Webber and Scott Newstator and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt reveals how hard the filmmakers tried to subvert romantic comedy, but I still don't feel it. Honestly, the commentary was almost depressing in that these seem like perfectly intelligent, nice, friendly people who genuinely set out to make a charming movie, yet I flip on the subtitles and I feel the same way about the images and dialogue that are up on the screen. Notable tidbits include useful things learned on "3rd Rock From the Sun", an extensive debate amongst the commentators about the proper inflection on the word "good", whether or not the script is "a little gay" (a statement some viewers might find offensive), Gordon-Levitt's "Mario exit", and more. There's also a fleeting Michael Jackson reference without any reference to his death, which should give you an idea how long ago this track was recorded. All in all, even though it made me feel bad to listen to it, I don't want to misrepresent the commentary: it's an informative chat that I found occasionally interesting even given my disappointment in the feature film. (By the way, Joseph, let's have a new commentary with you and Rian Johnson when Brick arrives on Blu-Ray, alright?)

The only other extra on this version is a group of nine deleted/extended scenes (14:22), with optional commentary by Webb, Webber, Newstator and Gordon-Levitt, titled "Lost Days of Summer". Oddly, these scenes (which are mostly extended or altered from scenes still in the film rather than completely deleted or removed) are set apart from the overall tone provided by the score and polish that came with the finished film, and I found that my opinion of them was almost the opposite of how I felt about the feature. I have often heard how strongly score affects a movie (Carpenter's Halloween comes to mind), but actually feeling the difference was legitimately like night and day. Maybe (500) Days of Summer would be better as a play. Most interesting to me: a couple additional on-camera interviews, the remarkably foreboding tone provided by the addition of distant thunder to a scene still present in the final film, a scene in the trailer where Tom's world is filled with hundreds of Summers and a less picturesque version of the musical number. Not surprisingly, the commentary is a dispiriting listen: the participants laugh at things like the thunder, illustrating again that they and I are just on entirely different wavelengths.

Trailers for Post Grad, Whip It, Jennifer's Body and All About Steve play before the menu, while trailers for Amelia, Fame, Adam and a promo called "Watch Romantic Movies" are accessible from the special features menu. Fans who have high-definition will want to note that the Blu-Ray edition of the movie adds a "Making of (500) Days of Summer" featurette, two audition tapes (with Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler) with optional commentary by Webb, storyboards, a "Sweet Deposition" music video by Temper Trap, six "Conversations with Zooey and Joseph", "Bank Dance" directed by Marc Webb, "filmmaking specials", a digital copy, and more.

After watching the movie, I had a bad taste in my mouth, but following the extras, even I can feel it: there is a good movie somewhere in (500) Days of Summer, but the final product is not it. It's a perfect example of a DVD's bonus material being a key to greater understanding of what it is about the picture that does or doesn't work, thanks to the deleted scenes that show the movie just being, without that spit-and-polish of artificial Hollywood charm that prevents the film from feeling genuine. I was ready to slap a "skip it" rating on the movie, but the deleted scenes were so interesting to me that I'll jump things up to a rent it -- make sure to give them a look.

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