Tuesday, 4 June 2013

(500) Days of Summer: Best romcom of the 2000's


Before I go any further I'd just like to make it clear that I do not think the film (500) Days of Summer (2009) is arty or quirky, or particularly "alternative". Too many people call it "deep" and speak of it like it belongs to some special movement in film. It's not that at all. That being said I do love this film and I will say that it does provide an alternative to your run of the mill, chick flick that Hollywood churns out endlessly every year.

I didn't see this film at the cinema. I'd heard people go on about it and how cute and different it was so when I saw it in HMV for a good price I bought it. I have seen it 4-5 times since my purchase and I like it more with every viewing. Yesterday evening when the sun had gone in and the air had become a little chillier, I thought I'd put a nice, summery, film on, so I chose (500) Days of Summer. Re-watching it last night I picked up on a few aspects of the film that I enjoyed and which I thought worked well.

Firstly, I think the non-linear, disjointed narrative is used to good effect throughout the picture. The film starts on day 400-and-something (I think) showing us a very depressed looking Tom. His friends are comforting him and advising him on what is an apparent recent break-up. Now that we know this, the film cuts back to day 1, the first time Tom sees Summer. This is repeated until the very end, with continuous flipping back to the past, and the zooming straight to the future. This could seem annoying but director Marc Webb has made sure that most of the cuts from past to future concern an event that is similar. For example, we have the morning after Tom and Summer had sex; this morning consists of Tom walking to work with the biggest smile on his face, dancing with people in the street, and more or less walking on sunshine. The scene finishes with Tom getting into an elevator in his work building with that big smile still on his lips.

We then cut to a couple hundred days later, the elevator doors open (continuation of previous scene) but Tom's face is sad. He looks dishevelled, miserable, and depressed. He has walked the same walk to work that he did when he first got with Summer - same walk but entirely different circumstances. What a difference a couple of months make. This is just one of many examples where Webb has juxtaposed past events with future events to show how much the relationship has deteriorated and how good it once was, or seemed to be.

He doesn't just use this for events though, nor does he only use cuts from past/present to show change. Webb also does it for things that are said, to create a sense of deja vu, or to show that one character is saying exactly what another character was saying a few months back, and usually it's a phrase or statement that they didn't initially agree with. The most obvious of these being his list of things he loves about Summer. This is what he says near the beginning of the film:
'I'm in love with Summer. 
I love her smile. 
I love her hair. 
I love her knees. 
I love how she licks her lips before she talks. 
I love her heart-shaped birthmark on her neck. 
I love it when she sleeps. 

And here is that same speech except he is saying it months later when he has broken-up with Summer. You'll notice it's more or less the same speech except with a negative version.

I hate her crooked teeth. 
I hate her 1960s haircut.
I hate her knobby knees.
I hate her cockroach-shaped splotch on her neck.
I hate the way she smacks her lips before she talks. 
I hate the way she sounds when she laughs. 

Even the first time that we watch the film we notice that this speech sounds familiar, only of course, he's changed his tone completely. What Webb does to make this even more effective and show us just how much Tom's view of Summer has changed is to have the altered speech played over the exact same montage of Summer that the previous speech had (except this time the colours are muted and less warm - very clever). It works. Suddenly she isn't as perfect or wonderful as Tom first described.

Another aspect I loved was how the film would question something and then show you previous moments that answer that question. For example, Tom says:

Do you ever do this, you think back on all the times you've had with someone and you just replay it in your head over and over again and you look for those first signs of trouble?

The camera then shows us snippets from the same scenes we've seen except this time the camera is on Summer. We can see the faces she pulls when Tom shows her something, or we see her cringe at a joke Tom has told. We see what Tom is looking back on as he asks himself this question. 

There were two other factors that seemed to increase the popularity of this film and make people notice it on its own instead of blending into the background of meaningless romcoms. I'm not in anyway saying that this film is super quirky and artsy, but you have to give the film credit for it's direction and soundtrack. Webb makes intelligent use of graphics, lighting, and even classic European cinema (he parodies films such as The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Red Balloon (1956). By combining these beautiful graphics, moody lighting, and hommage to non-mainstream film, Webb manages to push away from the re-hashed and re-used stuff we get with a romantic comedy.

Even though I do enjoy the odd rom-com, you can't help but notice the seemingly lack of thought that goes into them, as in, there is no effort to make them stand out. It seems as if they are the studios annual romantic comedy and they repeat the same formula and look so that it appeals to it's mass audience. From the posters - nearly always white background with red or pink writing, to the soundtrack - ever noticed how it's always the same score in these films? Anyway, I digress... the fact is, Webb has clearly taken this fantastic screenplay written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and worked with his art and cinematographers to give the film a sort of illustrated diary feel. Like a scrapbook for us to flick-through as the film progresses. It really is beautiful to look at and you can see the attention to detail in nearly every scene.

One thing I love about Neustadter and Weber's script is it's truthfulness. If you've been in a relationship or involved with anyone in some way, then at least one of the lines in this film will ring true or sound ridiculously familiar. It feels like both writers have really gotten to grips with one-sided relationships and taken it apart, analysing it properly, then transforming it into a comical yet moving script. The story isn't a tragic or devastating one, but it shows the hurt and emotional roller coaster that so many of us will go on in our love lives. Yes there are more important things in the world, but the majority of us will have given our all to somebody and loved them wholeheartedly, yet received a fraction of that in return. And it's heartbreaking, soul-destroying stuff, which is displayed superbly by Webb and his crew.

However, like with any good story you need a good actor that will make you empathise with the
character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so good in this film, so full of presence, charisma, and talent, that you can see why his career just seemed to escalate from that moment on. You really feel for him, not just because you can relate to what his character is going through but because he is so likeable and he seems so genuine. Zooey Deschanel is very good too. Although most of the emotional/comical work is given to Levitt, she portrays her quirky character convincingly and with added charm.

The penultimate scene of the film where Tom and Summer both speak to each other a while after their break-up and she tells him that he was wrong about her, is pretty moving. For the first time in the entire film Summer is showing emotion and actually has tears in her eyes. Is it because she actually loved Tom and hates that things didn't work out? Or does she feel bad for Tom that he fell for her and has therefore taken the break-up so badly? The look on Tom's face as she tells him that he was wrong about her shows his anguish and heartbreak, he looks as if he's in physical pain at having to part with her properly. Both Levitt and Deschanel are outstanding in this scene. You really feel like you're witnessing an incredibly private and emotional moment between two people who both either truly cared  for - or in Tom's case - truly loved each other.

This film isn't flawless but it is a very good romantic comedy, arguably one of the best and definitely the cleverest since the 1990s. I think it deserves it's place amongst cinema's other great rom-coms because it is so wonderful to watch. It documents the initial attraction between Tom and Summer, to their cute moments, their getting to know each other, their arguments, their awkward silences... we see the rise and fall of a relationship. One of the best aspects of the film is it's ending; in most romcoms the leads fall in love and whatever trouble they run into, love conquers it. But in 500 Days there is no going back. The relationship is over, but life isn't! Summer gets married to someone she loves, and Tom bumps into a beautiful architect outside his interview. Life goes on.

The first time I watched it I enjoyed it however I thought that it was being too clever for it's own good. But every other watch since then I've noticed that it's not trying to be clever at all, it's just taking rom-com to another level, like all the other rom-coms that have stood the test of time. Why should Webb settle for the typical formula of the current market? Let's get some colour and mood in there, let's make this film as special as it's script. Both leads give wonderful performances that are so realistic and so heartfelt that at the end of the movie you feel like you've witnessed an actual relationship. Many will be able to relate to this film but even if you can't you'll still find it immensely enjoyable and I'm sure you'll get a little teary-eyed at the end. There's a whole bunch of other things in it to enjoy like the soundtrack (Temper Trap - Sweet Disposition, a sunshine favourite of mine) the graphics, the great lines, but most of all is the excellent storytelling of the filmmakers and the performances of Levitt and Deschanel.

A brilliant romantic-comedy in every aspect. 4 stars.