09 August 2009

500 Days of Summer review

Finally saw 500 Days of Summer today. Plenty of others have had their say - both good and bad - since the film opened but I have a few thoughts I'd like to share.

First off, let me establish up front that like any sentient straight man, I've got a crush on Zooey Deschanel. It's not even just her eyes. She's got an edge to her few ingenues possess. She'd mess you up in a bar fight if you weren't careful. The cynicism and frankness in her Summer are terrifically appealing qualities too rarely found in women. She doesn't want a relationship, doesn't believe in love, and doesn't believe in games. It's as though the tough female sidekick from a teen romcom grew up to be the star of a love story. Or, as is the case here, the traditional male and female personas were switched in a romcom.

Let me continue by saying I'm a huge JGL fan. In this role he's given room to breathe (a bit; it does tend to the emo end of the spectrum) and gives a nuanced and subtle performance. Contrasting Deschanel's manga-eyes, his are narrowed to slits throughout; nonetheless, he expresses a variety of emotions solely with his eyes. Oddly enough, I'm reminded of Clint Eastwood and the way he lets so much of his inner life show through infinitesimal variations in his squint.

In many of the two-shots, the camera subtly favors JGL over Deschanel, drawing the eye to him. (Or, I've got a secret man-crush of which I'm unaware.) This, more than the film's POV, makes the audience attempt to relate to him. Which is good, because in every other way the film's structure forces the audience to be less emotionally engaged in the story.

The too-clever third-person narration serves to separate the audience from Tom quite a bit and the time-jumping structure - with the end a given - pushes the audience even further back. I found myself watching with a far more critical and clinical eye than I normally would for a first viewing: breaking down the movie, each scene, noting editing choices, and paying close attention to the use of music (more on that in a moment.) I actually found myself bridging my fingers during most of the screening, so intellectually engaged was I. I suspect that wasn't the desire or intent of the filmmakers and isn't the reaction positive reviewers seem to have had.

I liked the movie but didn't love it. I found the willingness of the filmmakers to throw a lot of different ideas on the screen refreshing, a bit like watching a grown up version of a Savage Steve Holland movie.1 The time jumps allow for some good jokes and juxtapositions but also hide a fairly conventional story. And while they make some poignant moments really pop - the pair of Ikea scenes and the two views of the record store scene both come to mind - they mostly served to keep me at arms' length. I saw the movie as a puzzle to be put together more than a love story; that engaged my logical faculties far more than my emotional ones.

Mostly I found joy in the smaller things like the tiny shout-out to Ferris Bueller's Day Off in the musical number and the split screen party and the performances by all parties. Geoffrey Arend - clearly the manliest, most awesome man alive2 - and Matthew Gray Gubler were particularly good as Tom's best friends, providing perspectives that were more traditionally male without veering into caricature. Even Minka Kelly was good, something I've never said before. She had so few lines, it seemed their only purpose was to show how full her lips are.3

And now, the reason this movie is striking a chord with so many people: the soundtrack. Not the choice of songs, certainly. I'm frankly tired of hipster kids who are alleged to listen to the music of my youth. No, the star of this film is the score. I didn't try timing it, but it seemed the majority of music in the film was diegetic. There was an extremely spare score but - and this is the key - it was silent during all the significant moments. Instead of the constant stream of music cues we're inundated with in most features and TV shows, here nothing got between the actors and us.

That silence is powerful because it is so unusual in film yet common in life. More than anything else, the silence of the score highlights the reality of Tom's situation. Those few moments that break from reality - the dance sequence, the French film, the erasing of the world around Tom - are all scored, as are lighter moments in the film and most of the scene cuts. But when we're in the moment, almost nothing takes us out of it. This is where the film shines.

As a whole it is so-so. In each of those moments it is universal and profound.

1. Yes, you have. Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, and How I Got Into College. My love for SSH is deep and profound and while I love that he gave us Eek! The Cat after he stopped making movies, the Disney Channel portion of his career hurts me.
2. Those who know who his fianceƩ is already know this.
3. And to deliver a silly joke.
4. I'm a prick.


Nictate said...

Great review, R.A. Very thoughtful analysis. Interesting that the editing choices left you with a sense of detachment, too.