(500) Days of Summer
d. Marc Webb / USA / 2009 / 95 mins
Viewed at: Lecture Theatre 1 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
Hollywood being Hollywood, it’s really only in recent years that filmmakers around my age have actually been placed in charge of feature film budgets. As such, its probably no real surprise that there has been a sharp spike in the number of films either set in the milieu of late ’80s / early ’90s indie rock, or otherwise devoted to telling the stories of mid to late 20-somethings who still devote large chunks of their time to its appreciation.
The manner in which a film gives reference to something which could be considered ‘faddish’ (as the aforementioned indie rock arguably is) can vary greatly. So whilst Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007) struggled to gain a realistic foothold in its appropriation of indie rock culture, a film like Greg Mottola’s Adventureland (2009) manages to scrape just under the imaginary bar of credibility because it tends to integrate its references with a much higher degree of subtlety and unobtrusiveness.
And in many ways, the same can be said for (500) Days of Summer, Marc Webb’s directorial debut (and indie sleeper hit), which seamlessly mixes its Smiths references into a charming tale of unrequited love. An exploration of the gap between expectation and reality that develops in many relationships, this is romantic comedy in reverse.
But what isn’t subtle, or unobtrusive, or seamless in (500) Days of Summer, is Marc Webb’s restless visual palette, and the overbearing, post-ironic gall with which he bludgeons his audience and undermines the whole project. Fresh off the set of countless music videos, Webb subjects his characters to a hyperactive patchwork of visual references, framed within a fundamentally flawed, non-linear narrative structure.
Critics may have lauded this film with superlatives like ‘clever’ and ‘offbeat’, but for me it really wasn’t either. And right from the outset, the signs are bad: the whole first quarter-hour is an unrelenting, confused mish-mash of scene-setting and lazy plot devices. Far from innovative, it just feels like a neverending film trailer.
Once Webb takes a step back, letting events unfold without his distracting stylistic flourishes, the screen is finally given over to that which is essential to any narrative-driven feature film, the story. With the narrative (and the audience) afforded some much needed breathing space, the two leads are finally able to inject some real emotion into the piece.
Before you know it, though, Webb starts bookending his realistic drama with a series of garish, extended montages, all cut to popular indie tracks. This is surely a lazy tactic for any director, let alone one who has previously specialised in the realm of music videos. Then again, this is his first feature, so perhaps we can put it down to inexperience.
Indeed, it’s pretty easy to be a hater when a film wears its modern US indie heart on its sleeve as much as (500) Days of Summer. And let’s face it, the central premise is nice enough and it’s hard to deny the charismatic presence of the two lead actors. In fact, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt are still two of the most interesting young actors around at the moment (at least in popular US cinema), and without their simmering onscreen chemistry, (500) Days of Summer would surely have been an unmitigated disaster.
And for all the over reliance on visual style, there are some truly wonderful moments buried within the scattershot structure of this film. In fact, without a hint of irony, the best scene comes wrapped in a moment of pure fantasy. The morning after the couple make love for the first time, Gordon-Levitt’s character leaves his apartment with a spring in his step (to the strains of Hall & Oates), and finds himself in the midst of a joyous, choreographed dance sequence with a crowd of passers-by. Unsuprisingly, it is scenes like this (and not the redundant montages) which provide the clearest indication of the emotional state of the central characters.
And in some ways, it is the manner in which Marc Webb structures this film that detracts from its overall impact. A central narrative which is, in essence, quite honest and earnest, has been rendered cold and impassive by the imposition of tricksterish, ‘oh so clever’ editing techniques, and the distracting overuse of a non-linear, puzzle-film aesthetic.
Apparently, Marc Webb has been attached to the next installment of the Spider-Man franchise, so Spidey fans should expect plenty of montages cut to Chad Kroeger and maybe even some more jabs at Ingmar Bergman. Oh, joy of joys.
Anyway, in the spirit of the bits of (500) Days of Summer which didn’t suck, here is a lovely little Bonnie and Clyde style short directed by Webb, and starring Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt:
And here’s the trailer: