Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Canon #1: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the now-defunct podcast, Extra Hot Great)

It's funny how time works, constantly re-informing the way we think about life as it progresses.  You may feel one way about something and then look at it in a completely different way just a year later.  When I first saw (500) Days of Summer in 2009, I absolutely loved it and eventually it ended up being my second or third favorite film of that year.  Since then, I hadn't rewatched it, and a part of me worried that I wouldn't like it as much as I did when I first saw it.  I worried that what 17 year old me found to be genuine emotion and insight lying under a thin layer of twee, might seem like a bit of inspiration completely obscured by a thicket of cloying cuteness to 21 year old me.

Fortunately, four years haven't done much to change my views on this wonderful little film that's all about the flaws in our perception when it comes to relationships.  Marc Webb's playful directorial touch in lockstep with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's charming script effortlessly convey the complexities of male-female interactions.  No matter how old you are or what your circumstances may be, there is probably something that you will be able to relate to in (500) Days of Summer.  Some of the scenes are so well-observed that they feel achingly real, even if they don't fall in line with your own history.  Falling in love is full of generalities, yet we all feel them with such an intense specificity, and the film's greatest strength is its ability to capture that very abstract idea.

The film's narrative is built on this nifty little trick, where the scenes are a nonlinear collection of days that chronicle the relationship between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  But this concept is not just a gimmick; it's used to tell the story in a way that's even more powerful than following it from start to finish.  Scenes that happen later in the relationship sometimes play right before a scene that happens early in the relationship and vice versa.  Something as small as Levitt making a joke and Deschanel not responding will be informed by the proceeding scene, where they make the same joke and are blissfully content earlier in the relationship.  With this constant temporal shifting and pastiche of film styles, the film feels less like a journey through the rise and fall of the love between two people and more like whirling fragments of exuberance and heartbreak.

Initially, it seems as if (500) Days of Summer portrays the relationship as an event of mythic proportions.  Narration is used to give this central romance a storybook feel, as if every moment of existence has been leading up to their pairing.  Upon further examination, though, the film is actually a takedown of the concept of all-consuming love.  As much as we would like to think so, the "dream girl" just doesn't exist, and treating women as objects is ultimately destructive.  That's why the famous Expectation vs. Reality scene is so fantastic -- it shatters all of the fantasies that Levitt has and reveals just how much of what we've seen has been his internal perception.  The film stumbles a bit with the little sister character (played by Chloe Moretz) and its overly-neat ending, which both try to underline the film's themes and overdo it.  But when it's just letting the story organically show how much the initial rush of infatuation may blind us to what's really going on, it's about as thoughtful and emotionally affecting as anything I've ever seen.

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