Sundance Review: ‘500 Days of Summer’

01.19.09 9 years ago

Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight’s “500 Days of Summer,” building buzz out-of-competition at Sundance before a summer release, is a twisty, knowing, bittersweetly biting romantic-comedy done-right, which is already a difficult enough chore.

Not content, though, at just being one of the better rom-coms in recent memory, “500 Days of Summer” aspires to a more durable goal. It wants to be its generation’s “Say Anything” or “When Harry Met Sally” or “The Graduate.” It wants to be the kind of movie that defines the way contemporary relationships work, that codifies the way men and women interact so thoroughly that every guy in the audience nods and goes, “Damn, that’s just the way love goes.”

It comes very close to achieving that goal.

If “500 Days of Summer” has a failing, it’s making its genre deconstructing intentions too evident, trying too hard to both show its influences and deconstruct them. But Sundance movies are supposed to be ambitious, eh?

Review after the bump…

Directed by first-timer Marc Weber, “500 Days of Summer” is less a love story than the recollection of a love-story. Heartbroken Tom (Joseph Gordon Levitt) looks back on his relationship with Summer (Zoey Deschanel), not as a linear chronicle, but as a series of days. Some are beautiful and romantic, others are tear-filled and depressing and even out of sequence, they add up to a totality of experience. 

[In the issue of full disclosure, I went to college with Scott Neustadter, who co-wrote “500 Days of Summer” with Michael H. Weber.]

Even though it starts off from a place of apparently unhappiness, “500 Days of Summer” never wallows in melancholy because Webb and the writers are constantly experimenting. Ted and Summer’s highs and lows include animated elements, split screens, fantasies and one sequence of spectacular smile-on-your-face whimsy that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Webb’s resume includes videos for Jesse McCartney, 3 Doors Down and Green Day, but nothing in “500 Days of Summer” gives any suggestion of his inexperience. Perhaps his greatest achievement is in creating the illusion that downtown Los Angeles is an architecturally diverse place where one might enjoy living, working and dating, as opposed to a place most LA residents avoid unless they’re stuck with jury duty or crave a good French dip sandwich.

The story reverses the “traditional” romantic dynamic by having Tom as the eager-to-commit, emotionally available one and Summer the one who doesn’t believe in love. Note that Women Who Don’t Believe in Love are a Sundance staple this winter. I saw “500 Days of Summer” immediately after “Paper Heart,” in which Charlyne Yi played herself as a woman with no faith in true love.

Because of Deschanel, it’s easy to understand how Tom (or anybody else) would fall in love with her. She’s a ball of sometimes-unexplained neuroses, but it seems moot to complain that her side of the story isn’t well enough developed. It isn’t like Katherine Ross or Ione Skye got equal time in “The Graduate” or “Say Anything.” 

This is a welcome return-to-form (or taste) for Deschanel, who attracted more 2008 buzz for her musical work than for roles in “The Happening” and “Yes Man.” And don’t worry, She & Him fans, Deschanel sings several times.

Gordon-Levitt also sings and even though it’s in the context of drunken karaoke, he shows his versatility.

Really, though, versatility from Gordon-Levitt shouldn’t be a surprise anymore. From “Manic” (which also starred Deschanel) to “Mysterious Skin” to “Brick” to “The Lookout,” The Kid From “Third Rock” has developed one of the best resumes for any actor of his age. This is probably Gordon-Levitt’s most conventional role since “10 Things I Hate About You” and he shows that in addition to pining and intensity, he can also play the leading man and that his sitcom-honed comic chops remain intact.

The fine supporting cast includes familiar TV faces Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler as Tom’s best friends and Chloe Moretz stealing scenes as Tom’s wise-beyond-her-years younger sister.

Fox Searchlight has already set “500 Days of Summer” for a July premiere date, where it will provide counter-programming to the summer blockbusters. A chick flick for guys, a character-driven workplace comedy in the Billy Wilder/Cameron Crowe mold, a new spin on a familiar genre, “500 Days of Summer” is one of the best films I’ve seen so far in Park City.

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