July 25, 2009

Review: Living Through '(500) Days of Summer'

"She's better than the girl of my dreams, because she's real."

Be warned: this is not a love story. So says the omniscient narrator of the decidedly unromantic comedy, (500) Days of Summer, which is so completely and thoroughly charming that it is almost too much. Watching (500) Days of Summer was an awful lot like reliving the last 500 or so days of my own life. Shockingly so, but more entertaining, less painful and without an extended musical dance sequence. But I gather that was the way the film was meant to be constructed; it could be 500 days of most anyone's life, because these are 500 days we have all experienced or will likely experience at some point.

People fall in and out of love (like they change hairstyles) and everyone endures heartache and heartbreak. This is the point of the story and ultimately, the triumph of film. Parts of it felt so genuine, personal, real and true to life, which is a testament to the artful writing and inventive direction. As David Chen put it, "no other film this year speaks more profoundly or truthfully about the process of falling in love, losing that love, and reconstituting yourself as a person afterwards." This is a story about love, both the good and bad parts of it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a greeting card writer and aspiring architect, Tom, who falls desperately in love with the unattainable Summer played by Zooey Deschanel. Tom is an all-around nice guy who is stuck with a raw deal. Tom wants Summer; Summer does not want a boyfriend. They get together anyway. Summer slowly pushes Tom away and the movie takes off. Like the title character says, love and relationships are messy and people's feelings inevitably get hurt.

Tom is the hopeless romantic influenced by years of romance songs, movies, and all things pop culture that he realizes are nothing but lies. Summer is the typical manic pixie dream girl of Tom's affection and seems utterly fascinating and simply irresistible. Tom dreams of endless domestic bliss and IKEA furniture with Summer. Tom slowly breaks down Summer's protective walls of distance and casualness as they form a close bond, but Summer is that girl. She is beyond Tom's comprehension. Everyone knows Summer or rather a Summer (like that bitch, Jenny Beckman). She is that archetypal guy/girl we all cannot help but fall inextricably and hopelessly in love with while struggling to understand why and move on.

Like the title suggests, the film takes place over a span of 500 days in the relationship of Tom and Summer. These days are shown out of order and in no definite sequence. The story is told using voice over, fantasy sequences, talking heads, and flashy musical montages. The film's structural narrative device aims to recreate a collective memory of a relationship where we start near the end and jump in between highlights and low lights. The dramatic nature of Tom and Summer's relationship is inventively crafted and dissected in a delightful yet meaningful way using creative editing and filming techniques. One scene artfully puts together a side-by-side comparison of the expectations of a potentially romantic event versus its actual reality that is quite haunting, even out of context.

The film creatively recreates the entire arch and story of a full romantic relationship remarkably well in 95 minutes. I do think it suffers from the usual sensibilities of similar indie hipster comedies produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, like Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno. Sometimes, the film gets a little too cute for its own good, but never strays too far as it steadfastly focuses on character development and relationship drama. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is stellar and features an eclectic mix of '80s hits that are seamlessly inserted into scenes without calling too much attention save for a couple transitions that are a tad obvious without being overly clunky.

Where (500) Days of Summer succeeds is in its explorations of characters, developing their relationships and motivation in way that offers genuine heart, understanding, and painfully truthful emotions. Music video director Marc Webb, in his feature directorial debut, deliberately and carefully crafts a compelling deconstruction of a relationship in a thoughtful manner that suggests and embodies all the frustrations and personal struggles of falling in and out of love. (500) Days of Summer uses flash and style to tell a genuine if not realistic portrait of young romance that plays on familiar Hollywood tropes.

Ultimately, Tom learns that love is an awful, horrible, terrible, wonderfully, amazing, mesmerizing thing and we have to repeat this arduous process until we get it right. In the end, like reliving those real life 500 days, this is a journey worth its weight in personal growth and entertainment value as a worthy viewing and life experience. Like Tom, after nearly 500 days of Summer, I too am looking forward to that first day of Autumn.

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