IFFBoston: (500) Days of Summer

25 April 2009, 12:46 pm

I’m going to try to do capsule reviews of all the films I see as part of Independent Film Festival Boston. Here’s the first.

The bad news: the first 15 seconds of (500) Days of Summer convinced me I was going to hate it.

The good news: I was wrong.

That first quarter minute includes a title card that at least verges on misogyny (and which unfortunately drew a big laugh from the crowd at my screening). Fortunately, the hateful outburst is inconsistent with the tone of the actual film — it almost suggest that screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, or possibly director Marc Webb, haven’t actually achieved the epiphany that their male protagonist has. The opening also includes voiceover narration from an omniscient viewpoint with a wealth of specific, often numeric detail. I thought this device worked fine in Amelie and Magnolia; it’s annoyed me in everything else since.

The most apt comparison for (500) Days of Summer is probably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — it also portrays the lifecycle of a relationship with its chronology in a blender set to frappé — minus the sci-fi elements, plus a few surprises, including some awesome sight gags I will leave to other reviewers to spoil.

The film’s time jumps are indicated by title cards with a picture of a tree in varying states of clorophyllitude and a number between 1 and 500. There are a lot of these, and the viewer might be forgiven for losing track of whether a given number is pre-breakup or post-breakup. But leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt (from the terrific high-school noir Brick) and Zooey Deschanel are up to the challenge; the way they react to one another grounds the chronology as effectively (if less precisely) than the title cards. They’re so convincing being moony-eyed that their reactions in the late stages of their affair are almost shocking.

The dialogue between the principals actually stands up pretty well to the Kaufman comparison: there’s enough quirky personal detail that Gordon-Levvitt’s Tom and Deschanel’s Summer feel like people, not archetypes, but there’s enough universality that sometimes I felt like I was watching my own biopic.

I wonder if the intermittent narration was grafted on after-the-fact to appease test audiences who were confused by the film’s failure to follow the standard RomCom story arc. I wonder if there’s any chance critical response could convince the studio to reverse the decision, because I think the absence of the voiceover would strengthen the picture. So would ditching the puerile opening title. Also, the very last line of dialogue? Lame.

Most of what was in between, though, was pretty darn good, with a few spikes of greatness. On balance, definitely recommended.

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