In this environment a small film has to be very strong to survive outside the big cities. “500 Days of Summer,” a charming, lower budget indie, is currently breaking away from a large pack of poorer relations. This one has the right stuff.
Summer Finn, (Zooey Deschanel,) a twenty something office worker from a small town, almost accidentally becomes the dream girl of Tom Hammond, (Joseph Gordon-Levitt,) a would be architect marking time writing greeting cards. But while Tom seeks some kind of commitment, Summer stubbornly resists.
We know right from the start that this couple can’t last, but the comic tone tells us the movie will amuse us in spite of that. Director Mark Webb and co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber have chosen to concentrate on the small moments between the couples’ beginning and end, for the most part showing them with visual and spoken wit. They wisely set a level in the early part of the picture and remain true to it, so the content bears up to the weight of a fragmented, seemingly spontaneous structure. Turns out the structure is very well thought out.
The movie jumps around in time. Titles tell us the various days they spend together and apart, in no particular order. What we get are mostly anecdotes that recreate the feelings, mostly Tom’s, of what it was like to long for, briefly possess, and then to lose Summer. Along the way we spend a lot of time with Tom’s friends and his younger sister, all of whom seem to get what Tom doesn’t; that Summer will never really be his.
An omniscient narrator delivers a series of dry observations about the characters, for the most part unnecessary. The filmmakers, emulating Woody Allen here, seem a little too concerned with the details of Summer’s history. As it turns out their visual instincts and the assured eye of cinematographer Eric Steelberg tell us everything we need to know.
When it began I thought the story took place in Philadelphia or Chicago. The color palette was autumnal, the images softly urban. I was surprised when it was revealed to be down town LA, which has been selectively shot and edited to create a very different city than the one I know.
I believe what holds the movie together, and keeps it in your memory is its savvy view of who these people are. Introverted, introspective and articulate to a fault, Tom has a solid grip on the microcosm, but is clueless about larger emotional realities. Summer, on the other hand, appears to drift, but keenly senses what she feels. Gradually we see that her idiosyncrasies mask a better grounded interior.
The last few episodes elegantly summarize the problem and its resolution. But it isn’t a drag, it’s funny and sensible. Tom may be better educated than Summer. He may be smarter. But he can’t talk her out of her instincts. He simply does not have enough of what it takes for her to surrender to him, at least not at this point in his life. The filmmakers know this and express it with the minimum of sentimentality.
Is this the Annie Hall of its generation? Yes and no. It’s stylish and sharp like the Woody Allen, but narrower in focus. Allen always has one eye on the larger picture, of a possibly godless world and the consequences thereof. He’s always stopping to comment as he stares into what might be the abyss. His introverted attitude can make it feel like he’s the only one in the story who seems to realize the fragility of all human endeavor. “Summer’s” creators seem totally focused on the inner lives of their two leading characters. They don’t spend much time dwelling on the state of the world. The soundtrack, the supporting cast, even the settings, reinforce that point of view. Incidentally, a terrific songwriter/singer, Regina Spektor, contributes at least two great songs.
Tom’s work at the greeting card company is an easy set up for a host of pot shots at middle American values. Ok, we’ve all cringed at how easily our complex emotions are packaged and sold at three bucks a shot. But the environment plays well against the movie’s juxtaposition of its characters particular stage of life, even if the device is a little facile. After all, this is a comedy.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is finally given the kind of role that shows him as the new age Dustin Hoffman. And Zoey Deschanel is a perfect foil for him. For the first time in a while she gets the space to delve into a character. She’s been good in other films, but her parts have been limited. This time it’s all about her. Instead of being used in a role she uses the role.
Like “Juno,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” the distributor, Fox Searchlight has given “500 Days of Summer” the marketing push it needs to find a large audience hungry for relief from the bombast of the seasonal blockbusters. See it and enjoy.