(500) Days of Summer(8/12/2009)

            One of my favorite online past-times is to read a blog called “Stuff White People Like.”  This is a satirical site that catalogs and explains various things that white people (by which they mean hipster yuppies) disingenuously enjoy out of a subconscious desire to be hipper than thou.  Every entry of this blog deals with a subject like “Organic Food,” “David Sedaris,” or “New Balance Shoes.”  So why do I bring this up?  Because I think the people who write for that site could write an entire book about how much of the new Indie romance (500) Days of Summer has been done in order to impress white people.  Among the entries of that blog which would apply to this film are: “Apple Products,” “Indie Music,” “Irony,” “Juno,” “Girls With Bangs,” “Musical Comedy (courtesy of a brief but conspicuous dance scene, more about that latter),” “Modern Furniture,” “Bad Memories of High School,” “T-Shirts,” “Architecture,” “Wes Anerson,” “Having Two Last Names (courtesy of star Joseph Gordon-Levit),” and I’m probably forgetting a few.

              The film announces from the beginning (via a monotone voice over reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums) that this is a story of boy meets girl, but that it is not a love story.  The boy is Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a twenty-something working at a greeting card company in spite of the fact that he holds an architecture degree.  The girl is Summer Finn (Get it! Her name’s Summer and the movie is called 500 Days of Summer!) who is played by Zooey Deschanel.  Summer is the new assistant at Tom’s greeting card company, they have little to do with each other at first, but eventually they bond over their enjoyment of the band The Smiths.  Soon they hook up, but it’s clear that they are both looking for different things in a relationship.  Tom believes in true love and is out looking for “the one,” while Summer is a free spirit just looking for a good time.  Their relationship goes for many ups and downs over the course of the film and eventually they must either reconcile their difference or, well… the voice over did say this wasn’t a love story.

            I’ve heard a lot of stories about the way “mini-majors” (The “independent” divisions of major studios, ala Miramax, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics, etc.) control things when they are producing movies.  Bear in mind that this refers to the movies they actually produce, not necessarily the ones they purchase and distribute.  The conclusion many have drawn about these studios is that they control productions just as much as the major studios do, that the “independent” label is merely a marketing device.  The “mini-major” who’s most notorious for this is Fox Searchlight Pictures, the people who brought us Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno.  Now of course those are good movies, and the mere fact that a studio has control over a film doesn’t mean it will automatically be bad, but it can be a big roadblock to true creativity, and this will rear its head in movies from studios like this that are less successful than the aforementioned titles.  I bring all this up because (500) Days of Summer seems to me like a ground zero for just how crass mini-majors have become.

            At its heart, I think this movie does have a pretty cute story that has a whiff of authenticity to it, but all of that has been steamrolled by a lot of derivative and obnoxious directorial tricks courtesy director Marc Webb, who unsurprisingly has a background in music videos.  It feels almost like the script was given to some sort of mad scientist in the Fox Searchlight labs (we’ll call him a quirkologist), who went through it and decided to add every whimsical “indie” cliché he could think of.  It’s got a non-chronological narrative, a load of pop culture references, an indie rock soundtrack, moments of unexpected animation, and even a god damn spontaneous musical number that’s been added for questionable reasons.  The base story is of course inviting such a treatment in many ways; after all, it’s about a mopey quarter-life crisis guy who seeks happiness via a manic pixie dream girl.  For those who do not know the phrase “manic pixie dreamgirl,” it’s a work coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe women in films that appear out of nowhere merely to serve the purpose of acting wacky and lifting up the film’s male protagonist.   Zach Braff’s Garden State and Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown both did as much with this archetype as was ever needed and this movie seems rather superfluous.  Oh, and don’t get me started on Tom’s magically precocious little sister who gives him love advice.

            Now in spite of my general distaste for this film’s derivative elements and general obnoxiousness, there are aspects to it that were clever.  Earlier I glibly dismissed the film’s non-chronological narrative as one of a list of indie clichés it indulges in, but the truth is that the technique was uses pretty effectively here and if that were the only of those clichés it used I probably wouldn’t have made the complaint.  Also, there are some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout the film, I especially liked the film’s customized “the events are fiction” disclaimer at the beginning and the reading of a greeting card that Tom writes while in the midst of depression.  Also, the acting in the film is mostly admirable.  While the film’s main character is a whiney tool, the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays him makes him seem a lot more relatable than the character that’s written on the script.  Zooey Deschanel is trying to do something similar, but the script has placed more obstacles in her path than in her co-star’s. 

            When all is said and done, this is a very irritating film.  It’s a romantic comedy that uses hip techniques and references to hide the fact that at its heart it’s just another date movie.  That said, it does at least try to hide this fact, which is more than can be said of the cookie-cutter nonsense like The Proposal which has dominated the genre for the longest time.  As such, it probably is an above average choice if one is looking to take someone of the opposite sex to see something that could be called romantic.  Under all other circumstances I’d advise against seeing it.

** out of Four

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