13 August 2009
"This is not a love story," warns the VOG narrator of the trailer to (500 Days of Summer), "it is a story about love." While I still fail to comprehend whether that statement has any substance (or if it is a trite play on words that sounds like it could be clever but actually says nothing), it seems to suggest that the film will make some sort claim that gets to the core reality or "truth" of love, unlike all those other romantic love stories we are all so familiar with. So what is love for handsome Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and space-eyed Summer (Zooey Deschanel)? What makes this film more true in its examination of love than all those other romantic comedies? Well, Summer doesn't believe in love and doesn't end up with Tom.
The offered insight regarding love-in-the-modern-age according to the film seems to be that the expectations we have within relationships always falls short of reality -- a reality that is paradoxical and irrational. This isn't a new concept for romantic comedies -- already perfected by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (among others) -- and director Marc Webb seems to acknowledge that by refusing to tackle anything new or insightful through his characters or their relationship. Tom and Summer are the cinematic equivalents of Dick and Jane -- average 20-ish white, middle-class purveyors of safe indie music and IKEA furniture that represent the majority of the film's hip target demographic -- in that they are pure surface; we don't need to know anything deeper about them since they are merely stand-ins for the delivery of a half-assed "moral" or "truth."
The end result of Webb's reliance on storybook characterization and narrative is a pastiche of romantic comedy cliches that are exaggerated in their artificiality. While exaggeration of cliches and genre conventions can give lots of room for excellent genre subversion and cleverness (think Blazing Saddles), that is certainly not the case for (500) Days of Summer. The cliches exist for themselves, becoming incredibly tiring. For example, Tom works at a dead-end job he doesn't like that compromises his more creative desire to be an architect, so what does he do? He freaks out at a meeting and quits to pursue his dream. Yawn. Tom is depressed about not being with Summer so he walks around in a bath robe and buys bourbon and milk at the local bodega. Har har har.
The characters also suffer a lot: they are flat caricatures that are defined by a few details that are supposed to say everything about them. Perhaps the worst of the lot is Summer, which is made even worse since she is a main character, as she is defined by quirks that deserve endless rolling of the eyes: she likes to say the word penis! her favorite Beatle is Ringo! she thinks porn is funny! Tom is given a little more room for introspection ( it really is his story more than anyone elses) and he is played with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the intrigue of that introspection is blocked by all of the cartoonish characterizations and narrative of the rest of the film. I eventually found myself more interested in seeing what shirt, tie, and sweater outfit Tom would wear in the next scene more than any advancement of plot or narrative.
What is surprising to me, however, is that despite all of this I still sat through (500) Days of Summer and was able to somewhat enjoy it, even while gritting my teeth every now and then (okay, maybe a lot). It was easily-digestible, like a sugar-coated confection that cuts your tongue every now and then and leaves a bad aftertaste, making you somewhat regret eating it afterward. Maybe this is because I am part of that target demographic; maybe because I know people that are approximations of those characters; maybe because it catered to my short attention span through jumpy vignettes. It was the same feeling I got from Juno (although that film's first 20-min are much more excruciating in its hip twee). But in both cases I always felt like I wanted my money back when the end credits start rolling, like I've been duped.
(500) Days of Summer is ultimately like Annie Hall for the Juno generation, and as such is entirely forgettable.