Movie review by Greg Carlson
Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” is, alas, a conventional, male-centric romance masquerading as an appealing hipster fantasy. Were it not for the chemistry of attractive lead performers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, the movie would have a difficult time sustaining its self-conscious cool throughout the jumble of its fragmented chronology. While marginally better than the bigger budgeted fare that “(500) Days of Summer” closely resembles, the movie would require a total overhaul to be considered a legitimate alternative to glossier “boy loses girl” features.
Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, an unrealistic romantic weaned on the achingly morose poetry of the Smiths and Joy Division – he sports not one, but two tee shirts idolizing the latter, including, in case we might otherwise miss it, the edition emblazoned with “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Tom clings to the thought that there is a perfect soul mate he is destined to find, and one day he spies the stunning Summer (Deschanel), a new hire at the boutique greeting card company where he works. The two “meet cute” in an elevator: overhearing music from Tom’s headphones, Summer warbles a few lines of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” instantly capturing the young man’s heart.
As Summer, Deschanel thanklessly embodies another variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Coined by critic Nathan Rabin, the MPDG describes a class of quirky, impossibly beautiful free spirits designed to, in Rabin’s words, “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Ultimately, the MPDG is a second-class cinematic citizen, a muse without her own agency who exists to serve the male protagonist on his quest for self-fulfillment. Deschanel’s Summer, who doesn’t believe in the old-fashioned romantic notion of “the one,” becomes a mere object to be won and lost by Tom.
In addition to its failure to operate outside of a strictly masculine point of view, “(500) Days of Summer” offers up a laundry list of clichés: unnecessary stentorian voiceover narration (wildly popular since “The Royal Tenenbaums”), a wise-beyond-her-years younger sibling who dispenses grown-up relationship advice (in full flower following “Bottle Rocket”), and Tom’s wacky comic-relief pals who grind the movie to a halt in every scene in which they appear (Summer, apparently, does not have any friends of her own). Add to that a post-coital musical number complete with animated bluebird, a tribute to the French New Wave, a couple trips to IKEA, and Belle and Sebastian, “The Graduate,” and J.D. Salinger references, and you have a recipe for smarty-pants vogue overload.
“(500) Days of Summer” wears its heart on its sleeve, and desperately wants to be loved by all the trendy kids. The movie also shields itself in irony, allowing the dismissive and condescending among us to buy in to the blunt obviousness that love hurts (although the most jaded will still turn up their noses at the inclusion of Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind”). The movie gets to have its cake and eat it, in the late-arriving form of Minka Kelly, whose character’s groan-inducing name is introduced with a fourth-wall breaking wink. Turns out experience, and Summer, were pretty good teachers, even if it’s all a little too cute.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/10/09.