Monday, January 11, 2010

500 Days of Summer: A Movie Review by Joe

 

videoBy the 75 minute mark, when Joseph Gordon Levitt, as Tom, makes a speech about how shallow and meaningless greeting cards are, as a metaphor for interpersonal communication, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER has already spanned a year in the intertwined lives of Tom and Summer, two cute and pleasant "indies" who are just trying to make it in sunny and clean Los Angeles, a city populated mainly by white office workers who go to cool bars, neighborhood cafes, and independent video/record shops, and can somehow afford specious downtown apartments with amazing views, despite their 9-5 jobs. Marc Webb tried to make a film about "real people" with "real issues" living in a "real city," but ended up creating what is perhaps the most superficial Hollywood film since David Fincher's THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.

Tom meets Summer at the greeting card company where they both work. Tom believes in the concept of "true love" and decides that Summer must be "the one." He soon finds out, much to his dismay, that Summer doesn't believe in love at all, but, as cute little indies do, they soon become friends with benefits, though Tom feels that their relationship means more than that. So they argue and eventually Summer quits her job and goes away, and Tom gets sad. Then they meet again, but Summer still just wants to be friends. Then it turns out she's gotten married. Tom gets sad. But, as happy endings have it, he might have also just found another "the one."

500DOS is the kind of movie that makes 20 something couples and the married middle aged feel good about themselves because it reinforces their romantic sentiments. Tom is a starry-eyed and love-struck hero who's "manipulated" by a mean woman who claims not to believe in romance, until she suddenly gets married because she found "the one." If we are supposed to sympathize with Tom or his plight, director Marc Webb does a terrible job of manipulating the viewer's emotions towards him, simply because he's so shallow. He's all emotions but no insight. He's a face without a brain. Of course, whether this lack of characterization is intentional or not, I don't know, but I'd imagine it isn't.

Summer, at least, seems to be glassy eyed and cold as part of her charm. That's just the way she is and Zooey Deschanel is to be commended for pulling off a perfect caricature of a dull and jaded hipster. Again, how much of that can be credited to the writing and directing, as opposed to Zooey's good acting, I don't know, but I'll bet on the latter.

The world Webb creates isn't the "real world," and maybe it's not supposed to be; after all, the film does feature a random musical number 30 minutes in, and the people in it are hardly "real people." They don't even feel like badly drawn characters. They're nothing. They talk about fluff, in fluffy ways, and fluffy settings. Kalvin Henely made a tremendously important point about how Webb treats the films "real world" setting, downtown Los Angeles: a place which, in reality, is full of thousands of the homeless, drunks, immigrants, push-cart vendors, and beggars, as if it were a tranquil all-American suburb, free of socio-economic blight. The people we see traversing the streets in Webb's downtown are not "real people," but a visual ethnic cleansing of reality. Same goes for Tom and Summer's "relationship." It's not real, or at all authentic seeming, except maybe in a structural sense, just as Webb makes the downtown structures an important visual marker throughout the film while ignoring their character. Tom and Summer's discussions and interactions with each other are as superficial as Webb's white-washing of the gritty urban center of Los Angeles.

500DOS comes the same year as SPREAD, the first American film by contemporary British auteur David Mackenzie, and follows a similar, though reversed narrative, in which a young playboy who doesn't believe in love finds it in a woman involved in his same profession. Set in the contrasting worlds of the L.A.'s ultra rich and the city's working class, SPREAD focuses on superficial people in a very real environment. It presents characters who are superficial, but for that very reason, also fascinating. Ashton Kutcher is Nicky. Just Nicky. No last name is ever given, but we learn more about him through his trying not to be emotional than we learn about Tom Hansen, whose full name and life story is told, as he tries to sway us to feel sorry for him over the course of 95 minutes.

Both Webb and Mackenzie are interested in depicting what they believe areexaggerations of "real life", but Webb opts for dream-like simplicity while Mackenzie's characters, despite being stuck in their own heads, have lives which are firmly grounded in a believeable environment. Both 500DOS and SPREAD are also obsessed with nuances and the importance of "moments" in life. In SPREAD, Nicky eventually decides that he wants love, but the girl he's chosen discredits his plea as a momentary interest and states that Nicky is unable to foresee the implausibility of their relationship. In 500DOS, everything is placed on the moment, but talked about in terns of what it will mean in the future. Summer wants to remain free and Tom wants to settle into marital bliss. They both speak about the present, but it seems that their interests are never with what's actually going on, but rather an idealizing of what could be. But where Webb fails and Mackenzie succeeds is that Mackenzie is able to divorce himself from his characters and let his film be about the environment in which they exist and how they interact with it. Webb is clearly very connected to his characters (a supposed-to-be-funny opening title implies just that) and consequently takes sides, pitting Tom against Heather, essentially saying that his views of relationships are valid and reasonable while hers are dishonest (as implied by her ultimately getting married).

At one point in 500DOS, Summer tells Tom something she "never told anyone before," which, to Tom, means that she trusts him as a lover and not "just a friend." This scene is supposed to imply Summer's closeness with Tom; a realistic closeness at that, and one of the few genuine seeming moments throughout the film. At one point in SPREAD, Nicky, who's life and lifestyle have been destroyed, calls his mother for help. Their call is cut off and the line goes dead. This single scene is the only moment at which Nicky truly breaks down and doesn't employ his wall of shallowness. As a result, we actually feel for him. That's never the case in 500DOS because all of our presumed emotional responses are handed to us by cute one-liners, or catchy songs. The film never allows its characters to develop and, what few emotions they are supposed to have are explained to us by a third person narrator.

SPREAD's Los Angeles is mass of isolated freeways and rich mansions, separated by neighborhoods full of ordinary people. In 500DOS, everyone is a bit extraordinary. They're "quirky" or "eccentric." They sing and dance in the street. SPREAD travels from expensive clubs to Beverly Hills, to Echo Park. 500DOS never leaves downtown, but it never really goes downtown either. It looks at it from hills, rooftops, etc. It talks about it, but never in real terms, only how it could be "better," as Tom comments.

SPREAD and 500DOS both end on what are supposed to be downers, punctuated by the potential for hope. Nicky, after being rejected by his lover, gets a day job, maybe his first. Tom, after being rejected by Summer, decides to pursue his dream of being an architect. Both characters' lives, and assumptions about relationships, have been altered. Nicky sees life as and endless cycle but Tom doesn't seem to have given up on his plan to find "the one." 500DOS closes as Tom finds a new girl, implying that things might work out better this time, maybe.

All contents copyright 2009 Joe Rubin.

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