500 DAYS OF SUMMER

If Heath Ledger was the new Matt Damon (to quote Josie and the Pussycats), then Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the new Heath Ledger.

I’m not just saying that because he’s in the new Chris Nolan film, Inception, but because he is the spitting image of the Late One. Admittedly, Gordon-Levitt’s interpretation of Cobra Commander is not as memorable as Ledger’s Joker, but Mysterious Skin is better than Brokeback Mountain (which was more interesting the first time with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton). I just hope this doesn’t mean JGL will be joining Damon in Brothers Grimm: Twice Upon a Time.

But I digress.

500 Days of Summer is that rare entry in the genre of unrequited love stories. Most rom-coms premised on a one-way crush, such as Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, perpetuate the usually false hope that in the end, no matter how late in the game, unrequited love will eventually be recognised, appreciated, and returned by the beloved. 500 Days bravely depicts the more likely outcome.

One of the film’s most successful achievements is the way it captures the subjectivity of human experience. Tom’s tragic flaw is his habit of misinterpretation, signalled early on in the film when the narrator informs us that Tom’s romantic view of love is the result of listening to depressive Britpop and “a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” Later in the film we see Tom and Summer watching The Graduate and Tom can’t understand why the film’s ending makes Summer cry so much. It affects her deeply because she reads the film correctly but Tom misreads his own relationship with her as badly as he misreads the film.

Deschanel deserves credit for taking this role so quickly after graduating to the most commercially pre-packaged of Manic Pixie Dream Girl roles in Yes Man and, in a more demure incarnation I presume, in Gigantic. In contrast, this film wisely relies on the actress’s natural charms to convince us of her beguiling effect on men without recourse to the contrived eccentricities (or, in the parlance of our times, “quirkiness”) of lazier screenplays. As the narrator observes, Summer is of average physical dimensions, and the screenplay does not invest her with any special characteristics of personality or fashion to telegraph her extraordinary nature. Yet Tom’s recognition of her uncommon attractiveness is not a unique insight on his part, for she has the same effect on nearly all men.

Her performance and the screenplay have been criticized for simply asserting Summer’s innate attractiveness to men without ever demonstrating it. But this is the essence of the character, brilliantly realized in the casting of Deschanel, who inspires a rabid male fanbase helplessly devoted to her charms even though they have never met her. The parallel between the fan/celebrity relationship and that between the romantiholic and his idol is perhaps alluded to in the parody of Persona, which is at the center of Tom’s imaginary montage of Bergman films into which he inserts himself as the protagonist. (Seeing him losing a seaside game of chess to Eros particularly amused me.)

The sequence integrates the extreme subjectivity of Tom’s perspective with his acceptance of his role as a consumer of pop culture. He is not only “the hero of the story” as one of the Regina Spektor songs states, but also the director and crucially—through selective recollection of his memories—the editor of his story. The unfortunate result for Tom is that his experience of his own life is often a misinterpretation of its very events.

The Bergman montage and a musical dance number with the spontaneous choreographed participation of passers-by are two examples in the film of how Tom, as a consumer (and to an extent, creator) of pop culture, interprets his life in the terms of film and music. This also provides the basis for the funniest visual joke of 2009, when he looks at himself in the reflection of a car window. I won’t spoil what exactly he sees because it took me completely by surprise, thanks to the admirable lack of reference to the source anywhere else in the film.

The film’s best supporting role is Chloe Moretz as the little sister who offers sage advice; again, making fun of the trope more than perpetuating it. When Tom questions her lack of experience on a particular point, she responds perfectly with a gender-based comeback. Contrary to some critics who see only cliche, their relationship is not about how wise children are but about how immature Tom is, that his romantic conundrums are obvious even to a junior high girl.

Neither she nor any character in the film spouts Juno-esque dialingo; practically all accusations of the film’s hipness and quirkiness have been greatly exaggerated. The Times reviewer inexplicably asks, “Who would want to go out with a guy who dresses like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall?” suggesting he might have seen a different movie than everyone else. The leads struck me as conspicuously unquirky, and references to such groups as the Smiths seemed genuine to me rather than artificially shoehorned into conversation (like Juno), and helped situate the characters in a particular generation (mine).

My friend Jeri “felt as if it carried a laundry list of ‘cool’ that needed to be checked off as the movie progressed. After all, this movie is about two hip twenty-somethings, so we’d better make sure they like to go to Ikea,” etc. Although I am sympathetic to this criticism of most movies, and went into 500 Days expecting to dislike this element of it, I was surprised to find the Ikea sequence a thematically integral setpiece rather than part of a cynical hip checklist.

The leads do not “love to go to Ikea” because it is cool or hip. Throughout the Ikea montage, Tom and Summer are mocking the image of a perfect domestic ideal perpetuated by all of the furniture arrangements. Their play-acting might harbor an element of wish-fulfillment earnestness for Tom, but Summer’s performance is entirely ironic. These scenes, set appropriately in a furniture store, highlight the differences of their expectations for the future, which Summer makes explicit at the end of the sequence. In this film, Ikea is not a lazy shorthand for hipness but an ominous harbinger of the disjunction between expectation and reality depicted more explicitly later in the film.

If anything, it is the incongruity of a suburban corporate institution like Ikea with the rest of Tom and Summer’s urban, architectural tastes that highlights its thematic significance. Wouldn’t it have been more predictable of their characters to wander around a hole-in-the-wall furniture store no one’s heard of? The fact that these scenes take place at Ikea rather than a traditional store is not so much a testament to the ubiquity of Ikea, as to Ikea’s mastery at selling a prefabbed fantasy to customers whose reality will never match up to the hermetically sealed room arrangement on display in the store.

The fact that 500 Days maintains a light touch throughout its run time should not be allowed to distort its true nature. Not only is 500 Days not a romantic comedy, it is not primarily a comedy at all. It is frequently humorous, but its situations, conversations, and emotions are achingly realistic. One of the film’s most impacting sequences is its representation of the discontinuity between expectation and reality, an experience so common to everyday existence, yet so rarely depicted as viscerally as in this film.

Some audiences seem disappointed 500 Days is not funnier. While I was charmed by its sense of humor on first viewing, on the second I realised that this is a serious film that represents emotions honestly, even while it manages to find humor in the of pathology of romantiholics like Tom.

POSSIBLE SPOILER:

Some have said that the ending is inappropriately optimistic, effectively ignoring everything previous, but I think everything beforehand ominously tempers the optimism of the ending with the specter of recapituation. It could be considered as equivocal as the final shot of The Graduate, but many critics are reading Marc Webb’s first film as superficially as Tom reads Mike Nichols’ second.

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