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Non-Review Review: (500) Days of Summer

Romantic comedies generally suck. They’re predictable and formulaic. They don’t reflect the reality of relationships. They involved hackney cliché and coincidence. They never actually deal with any of the hurdles that real couples do. Sure, every once in a while there’s an exception like Chasing Amy or As Good As It Gets, but for the most part, I can’t stand the trite conventionalism of the romantic comedy genre. So, last night – as payback for dragging my girlfriend to District 9 – we saw (500) Days of Summer. Now I’m going to use four words I never saw myself using together in this combination: an innovative romantic comedy.

After the boys of Summer are gone...

After the boys of Summer are gone...

There, I said it. It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s funny, it’s original and – above all – it’s honest. Mostly. But more hoenst that any movie I’ve seen since the two movies mentioned above. Love messes people up. Not every relationship begins with two people wanting the same thing and you can’t just change their perspective on life like 27 Dresses or The Ugly Truth. Sometimes people cause hurt and sometimes they get hurt. Soemtimes things don’t go as well as they should. Sometimes boys and girls don’t fall into the cookie-cutter mould of what a romantic lead should be (and I’m even talking about the “oh so unconventional” ones as well).

In a neat twist on convention here, the boy (Tom) is the one head-over-heels, while the girl (Summer) doesn’t believe in love. The two have fun and their relationship crosses so many wonderful lines. There are really sweet and honest good days, but there are also inexplicably bad days.

The film takes a great step in putting these good and bad days into a blender. We travel the 500 days of their relationship, but not in a linear manner. We jump backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards. Sometimes we spend pretty much the whole day with them, sometimes only a few seconds. It’s a really neat device to use in a romantic comedy (non-linear storytelling typically being exploited for thrillers like Momento or dramas like Irreversible). Here it allows for wonderfully ironic echoes or to allow greater contrast between the good days and the bad days. It is a jumble, a mess – but aren’t all truly great love affairs?

Sure, the film trots some conventional lines, but even those it deals with in an interesting manner. We don’t get closure on absolutely every element of the various sideplots, but that doesn’t matter. Tom’s closest advisor in affairs of the heart (that character mandated by law to appear in a romantic comedy) is his no-nonsense younger sister who counsels him between little league games. Even the requisite “man on the morning after” scene – which has been played in everything ever, most notably with Ross in Friends – is probably the best scene of its kind you will ever see.

The director, Marc Webb, shows huge talent and visual flair. His roots of a music video director help him sync up sight and sound lmost perfectly during several sequences. the film breathes and lives. The quirkly little moments where the film drifts off from a conventional narrative (a trip through blank-and-white auteur cinema with Tom and his depression, for example) are inspired and refreshing, but never dominate. For all his showiness, Webb knows restraint – which is a rare gift in a director so talented with sight and sound. Webb knows when to anchor his audience and when to let them drift – when he needs to adher to reality and when he can take a more expressionist tack.

The two lead performances are fantastic as well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt needs more work. He proves himself a brilliant leading man here, and he is a leading man. Tom is the film’s lead role, not Summer and not even the relationship. It’s Levitt who must bring us through the emotional wringer and it’s Levitt who we spend the most time with. I’d hope that this would be a star-making role, but I’d be wary of trapping Levitt as a romantic lead from here-on out. Not all films are as well-written as this. Seriously though, hopefully his career will kick into high gear after this and I am now anticipating Inception even more.

Zooey Dreschanel is also great as the woman of Tom’s affections. The role is a tough one to balance: our sympathies are supposed to remain with the more idealistic Tom and (to be frank) some of her actions seem more than a little mean from his perspective. I’m sure it works the other way as well, but the film shares his viewpoint. Dreschanel manages to engage with the role and to show us what the movie terms ‘the Summer effect’.

All-in-all, the best romantic comedy I have seen in ages. See it for its fresh writing, its stunning direction or its great leads. Just see it. As the end of the year approaches, I’m already sorting the film I’ve seen into a top ten and – at the moment – it looks like this may make the list.

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(500) Days of Summer is the first film from director Marc Webb, starring Zooey Dreschanel (Elf, Yes Man) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From the Sun, Inception), with Matthew Gray Grubler (Alvin and the Chipmunks, Criminal Minds) and Clark Gregg (Iron Man, Choke). It was released in the States on 17th July 2009, but – ironically – those of us in the UK and Ireland had to wait until autumn to see the film on 2nd September 2009.

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2 Responses

  1. I absolutely adore this film not just for the script but for the cinematography and beautiful little quirks.

    • I think the “best morning ever” may be my favourite sequence of 2009. I think Webb has good things in his future, it’s almost a shame he’s been shackled to the Spider-Man reboot.

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