Review by Hugh Lilly
“This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know up front: this is not a love story.” So proclaims the deep-voiced narrator at the start of (500) Days of Summer, the début feature by music video director Marc Webb. The protagonist, Tom, is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a rising star since breaking away from the “that kid from 3rd Rock” label with Brick four years ago. He’s a young man toiling away at a greeting-card company, with aspirations to be an architect and a mildly bleak outlook on life fostered by two things: a love for gloomy ’80s Mancunian pop—he wears both Unknown Pleasures and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” t-shirts, and listens endlessly to Morrisey’s bittersweet balladry—and “a total misreading of the movie The Graduate”. He also reads the essayist, novelist and pseudo-philosopher Alain de Botton, but whether that has any impact on his disposition is left unsaid.
Summer, played by the unfortunately now-typecast Zooey Deschanel, starts work at Tom’s company one day, and—for him, at least—it’s love at first sight. The conceit behind the parenthetical ‘500’ in the title is that Tom and Summer’s relationship lasts for that many days; the film flits back and forward between days, signalled by title cards that flick over like the flight announcement signage in airports. The story is therefore told out of order, in a way—except that it still ticks all the basic three-act ‘conflict–development–resolution’ storytelling boxes, and in that order too.
The soundtrack—like the characters’ costumes, and the film’s mise-en-scène—is calculated to appeal to a certain audience: Feist, Regina Spektor (twice), The Black Lips, The Smiths (also twice) Doves, Spoon, The Clash—and even an unexpectedly perfect use of “Quelqu’un m’a dit” by Carla Bruni help keep the story buoyant. Deschanel seems intent on showing off her singing skills any chance she gets—see also the recent Jim Carrey flop Yes Man—and here she fits in a syrupy karaoke rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugartown”. (As a bonus, the soundtrack CD includes Deschanel and M. Ward’s reverb-filled rendition of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”.) Summer quotes Belle and Sebastian under her high-school yearbook photo, and Simon and Garfunkel make an appearance, too, through Webb’s carefully chosen quotation of the final scene of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate set to the achingly beautiful title track from Bookends; the lyrics couldn’t be more fitting, either: “Time it was, and what a time it was it was / A time of innocence a time of confidences.” Other filmic references include a re-playing of Fellini’s La Strada and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel’s hilarious lampooning of Bergman’s Persona and The Seventh Seal that play when Tom goes to the movies. Tom’s spontaneous dance number in the middle of the second act is silly but enjoyable, and the spritely, piano-driven score, by Little Miss Sunshine composer Mychael Danna and basso profundo narrator-cum-co-composer Rob Simonsen, perfectly complements the film’s mood.
The writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, only have one prior credit thus far: the second instalment of the horrendous Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther franchise. Without the constrictions of a prior story though, their abilities shine through: the slyly-implemented jokes are just crude enough to seem fresh, and the way the story is told is relatively original—at least in the romantic comedy genre. Webb’s hands-off direction and simple camerawork—the incorporation of 16mm Polaroid footage, for example, and his utterly brilliant use of dual-plotline split screen at a climactic point in the narrative—is not as flashy as might be expected given his background.
Any number of actresses could have played Summer—Olivia Thirlby, Jenna Malone, Emma Stone (the redhead from Superbad) or maybe even Ellen Page, for but a few examples—but only Deschanel can lend her the requisite chic, mid-’60s London mod vibe; only she could pull off that hairdo and the myriad little pale blue summer dresses the character wears—a different one every scene, just about. Similarly, only Gordon-Levitt could have played Tom; it’s nearly impossible to imagine any other actor of this generation in the role.
Chief among the film’s many surprising elements is its unconventional use of architecture. The film is set in Los Angeles, the most photographed city in the world, but what shines through is not the city’s messy tangle of congested sprawling concrete freeways but rather a verdant, hipster mecca Williamsburg-equivalent subsection of L.A., complete with neatly-maintained, meticulously-designed ‘vintage’ apartments with wrought-iron gates and spectacular views. The historic, exquisitely-designed Bradbury Building, used in the climactic scene of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, appears at the end of the film where it plays an architecture firm where Tom has an interview.
Throwing labels like ‘quirky’ and ‘offbeat’ at a film like this isn’t really helpful, as they wouldn’t stick. (500) Days of Summer might not appeal to everyone—that’s certainly not its ambition—but those who will really enjoy it have probably been anticipating its release for a while now, and for anyone else the trailer should help you decide pretty quickly. The only problem with the film comes at the end—but to explore that here would ruin the experience; suffice it to say that the world keeps on turning, and seasons inevitably change.