Friday, February 12, 2010

Film for Lovers: (500) Days of Summer

What a week it's been. (Pretend.) We've looked at films on love in all its ups and downs, from warm highs to deep, painful lows. From Ireland to Hong Kong to California, Japan, and now, to wrap up Film for Lovers 2010, we return to Los Angeles, California for something recent, familiar, warm, and bittersweet.

I speak of none other in this case than one of my personal favorites of 2009, (500) Days of Summer.

There's a lot of good things in this trailer, one would hope all of which would sell you on the film. First, we have the film's leads: 3rd Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Who was fantastic in Rian Johnson's Brick a few years back. Another highly recommended film.) and indie movie queen Zooey Deschanel, who is obligated by the laws of filmmaking to be in all films of this nature. (And those she isn't, she's connected to in spirit.) Two very talented young actors who've earned their regard. Then there's the well chosen and well-cued music - and the film itself does have an excellent soundtrack. (There's even blatant references to The Smiths and Sid and Nancy Vicious within the dialogue! Instant hipster appeal. Hipsters do still like The Smiths and Sex Pistols, right? Or are those too dated?) Clever narration's always a nice deviation from the expected trailer voiceover, too. The world's still dealing with the loss of Don LaFontaine. And it's not a love story, you say? Deviation from the expected 'twee' indie/hipster-friendly romance we've seen so many times already? (I'm pretending I haven't eaten up and enjoyed tons of these films myself.) Excellent.

Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, (500) Days of Summer draws much of its central story from the personal experiences of the former, who went through a pained relationship abroad in London for college, with all the highs and inevitable lows captured by the film. That so much of the story comes from a very real place - without the expected Hollywood glamorizing - lends (500) Days of Summer an authenticity on top of its cinematic wit and charm. There are real feelings and experiences there that many have experienced. Director Marc Webb was in a happy, stable relationship at the time the film was made, and feels that their two separate perspectives allowing them to fully bring out the story's humor.

(500) Days of Summer tells the story of the ill-fated romance between trained architect and professional greeting card writer Tom Hansen and Summer Finn, his boss's new executive assistant. In a way not unlike Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the events of their relationship are presented out of sequence in a nonlinear fashion. In this case, of course, the framing is nowhere near as surreal as Eternal Sunshine's memory-erasing process, Tom spilling his guts to his friend and amusingly wise younger sister after everything had already come to an end. It's established from the get-go that (500) Days of Summer is more of a bittersweet coming of age anti-romance than any sort of romantic comedy. There is romance, and there is comedy, but the feeling isn't mutual. Tom may believe in love, but he and Summer will not end up together - a great "Fuck you and your trite expectations" from the first step forward into their story.

As the narrative unfolds, Tom notices Summer, and she ends up being the one to initiate first contact, noting their shared enjoyment of The Smiths while riding in an elevator. Already attracted to her, Tom is caught off guard and doesn't know how to respond - like most people when abruptly approached by someone they're attracted to. After bonding at a work social function at a local bar and developing a casual rapport, mutual attraction leads Tom and Summer into friends-with-benefits territory. One of them falls in love; the other does not.

Tom is on cloud nine, Summer is just having a good time. A fight inevitably leads to a breakup, and while the fact that they don't end up together was established from the beginning, I won't spoil the rest of the film, which largely focuses on how Summer and Tom affect one another after splitting up. There's positives and negatives to the heartbreak - like any, though one obviously feels like there's only the latter - and the two end up going in very different directions with their lives. The ending will leave you smiling, though. And with the toll sympathizing with Tom's heartbreak takes, you need that.

(500) Days of Summer ended up a personal favorite for reasons not unlike the aforementioned Eternal Sunshine. It's uncompromisingly honest about relationships - in particular, the painful reality that no matter how much you may love someone, there's never any guarantee they'll return your feelings. Humans are strange, fickle, neurotic creatures with far more insecurities and hangups than most people would dare admit to if asked. So many things can draw us to one another, both large and insignificant. And just as many things can repel us. It can be any number of big things in a relationship, or even the smallest, littlest issue that becomes the thread that unravels everything. The closer people get to one another, the thinner their skin becomes. As we get to know one another intimately, we also unconsciously develop the ability to inflict the most pain upon each other with the least effort - and most easily by accident. We all have our bad moments, and no one is perfect. This is something that ended up being one of the numerous themes in my first novel.

As complex as attraction is, it's a wonder people fall in love at all. It's no surprise either that so many end up merely enamored with love as an ideal concept - much as I love to jab at Hollywood over - and lose sight completely of love as an authentic experience, whether shared or unrequited. To human beings, meaningful bonding is necessary for our survival and emotional sustenance and health, regardless of whether any of that involves the propagation of the species. People can end up physically attracted to each other, but not intellectually or emotionally. They can end up enjoying each other's company and conversations, but want nothing more and feel nothing romantic. You could have a "type" in mind, then find somebody who seems perfect and yet feel nothing. When you overthink it - as I proudly do - the odds are astronomically against two people falling completely in love with each other on every level and achieving anything resembling a deeply satisfying, happy relationship. And happiness itself is fleeting at best - all we can do is grab hold of its vapor trails and hope we don't fall from the sky too soon. (It's always sooner than we'd like.) The world's full of people who wanted and expected more out of life, but who settled for less, because it beats the alternative: being alone. It's a distinct risk nobody wants to take in the long run - it's easier to grab the first person you can stand, and who can stand you, by your mid-twenties to thirties, slap some rings on each other, pop out a few kids, and hope like hell one of you doesn't get tired of it after a while. We all have unrealistic expectations, but if we had realistic ones, life wouldn't have even a glimmer of romance left in it - there wouldn't be much of a point to anything, given the sheer importance of love in the complex, simple experience of human existence.

Past my diatribe, (500) Days of Summer is a beautiful, honest, human film. It's also very fresh and funny, with a great soundtrack and gorgeous L.A. cinematography, showing off the city in all its charms. The direction is strong, and there's a number of notable visual quirks throughout the film that help it stand out even more: in particular, a splitscreen sequence pitting Tom's expectations for an evening against the disappointing reality. Brilliant. The script is very organic in its dialogue and story progression, the characters all believable as human beings, with no one too over the top. And for all the cold, hard honesty the film doles out in the face of countless idealistic films about young love, there's no lack of warmth and sympathetic humanity. (500) Days of Summer is a film virtually impossible not to love - and thus, the way to conclude this year's Film for Lovers feature.

Thanks for sticking around and reading, everybody! I'll try to do more film posts highlighting a variety of movies over the course of this year, to round out my posting frequency more. I have every intention of doing a third of these next year - I just have no idea what movies I'm going to write about then yet.


CrazyCris said...

One of my favourite films this year. Bitter and sweet and brutally honest indeed!

Benjamin Fennell said...

Yes indeed. Wonderful, wonderful movie.

*T-Abby* said...

I didn't see this movie but I think I might have to! I've been looking for an honest love story, especially because I've been embracing my bitter cynic lately (all in my blog lol). I'm gonna add that to my list.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Be sure to check it out. I've dropped by your blog and seen that - you'd definitely get a lot out of (500) Days of Summer. Films on love stories like this are rare. Definitely appreciable as a cynic.

*T-Abby* said...

this movie has now been added to my netflix list (which is begnning to read like i'm a schizophrenic lol)

Benjamin Fennell said...

Hey, that's pretty much the point of Netflix, as far as I can tell. Anything and everything, always. I've got more of Weeds season 5 coming now.

*T-Abby* said...

Nice! I enjoy weeds, I pushed "(500) Days of Summer" to the top and I also have "I am Curious: Yellow" coming.

Benjamin Fennell said...

It's great stuff. Getting very dark in recent seasons, but no less funny. Great to hear. :) Hm, I've never heard of that one before.

*T-Abby* said...

watched (500) Days of Summer tonight and wow, I did not think I would enjoy it as much as I did. I was like "Damn You, movie for making me feel feelings!!!" But I have to admit I kinda hated Summer by the end of it.
"I am Curious (Yellow)" is worth checking out if you're into documentary style, new-wave 1960s social commentary art movies. Its a Swedish movie that came out in the 60s and it was deemed obscene and there was a big trial over it.Its no where near as graphic as I dunno..."In the realm of senses" It was enjoyable if you don't mind subtitles. it was confusing, enjoyable, funny and sympathetic. The story itself and the film style has a lot of juxtaposition. There's also a very interesting use of footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that the director actually shot.

Benjamin Fennell said...

I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it. :) Yeah, I think everyone comes away from it with some bitter feelings on Summer, but I couldn't bring myself to hate her character. She'd only been honest with Tom all along and he still fell for her anyway. Life's strange and sad. Such a wonderful film.

Interesting. I've never seen either of those films. I'll have to check them out at some point. Subtitles aren't an issue for me, since I've been watching foreign film, TV, and animation for a good 13 or so years now, so speedy subtitle reading is second nature to me.