Sundance Part 4: 500 Days Of Summer
Posted on Sunday January 18, 2009, 15:36 by Damon Wise
After a relatively quiet start, Sundance hit its stride yesterday with the world premiere of 500 Days Of Summer, a Fox Searchlight release that has been getting a lot of buzz after test screenings in the LA area. It's very much an LA film, so it doesn't surprise me that it should hit the spot there, and there was so much love in the room that I was a little sceptical as to whether this was really a public screening or a private party. And as for the standing ovation, well, that was very nice, but I'm afraid it takes more than one good movie to have me on my feet applauding. But I digress, because that's what this cheerfully disarming romance does. Somewhat in the style of Memento, it's a film that charts 500 days of a young man's obsession with a girl at work, but not in chronological order. Zig-zagging through time, it finds unhappy greeting cards writer and frustrated architect Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falling for the boss's PA, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), after convincing himself that she is The One. Tom is a grown-out emo kid; he liked the Jesus And Mary Chain and Joy Division as a kid, and when Summer compliments him on his taste in music – he's listening to The Smiths' There Is a Light That Never Goes Out on his iPod – Tom is smitten, much to his friends' disgust.
They date, and they fall in love. Or rather, Tom does: Summer remains stubbornly distant, claiming that love is a myth and they're just good friends, refusing to acknowledge anything special about the relationship. Finally, after about a year, she dumps him, and Tom is heartbroken, even taking advice from his little kid sister in scenes that could come from a late-period John Hughes movie. And this, pretty much, is all that happens in 500 Days Of Summer, and though the calendar device wears a little thin by the end (even after a brisk 90-odd minutes), director Marc Webb isn't so much bothered about narrative as detail. Because this isn't really about the story of their affair, it's about the story of Summer's effect on Tom, and a scene in which Tom attends one of Summer's parties after their split is a very, very remarkable piece of work, showing on the left-hand side of the screen what Tom hopes to happen and on the right-hand side what really happens. I don't think there can be a man alive who can't relate to this scene in some way, shape or form; Summer isn't trying to be mean, but the spark's just not there any more and Tom is devastated, coolly hanging onto his beer bottle and dignity, keeping one eye on the door while praying for a quick, clean, unnoticed exit.
And as a film about the downside of infatuation, 500 Days Of Summer really delivers. It's a beautifully winsome, bittersweet romcom that feels a little like the better films of Peyton Reed, a sometimes underrated filmmaker who smuggles a very subversive sense of pathos into his Hollywood comedies (I'm thinking of The Break-Up here, or Bring It On). The two leads are quite wonderful together, and Webb really understands Deschanel's offbeat appeal: she's not a conventional object of desire, she's a little goofy, and perhaps even gawky, but, as John Waters once said, “Beauty is good looks you can never forget,” and this is where Deschanel comes into her own. The one false note in the film, however, is that Tom feels she is out of his league, and if you've been following Gordon-Levitt's career you'll be pleased to hear that this, finally, could be the film that pushes him over the top. The promise he showed in Brick has really developed; he's charming, funny and, above all, impossibly handsome, with a shy grin reminiscent of the late Heath Ledger. Leading-man status, he owns it.
Though it played well across the board in Sundance (the old dear next to me called it “as cute as a bug's ear,”), I'm not sure how big 500 Days will get outside of this festival. Clearly, Fox Searchlight would like another Juno, but Webber's film is maybe a little more niche, in the sense that it's about a young, hip couple who like the Pixies and joke about Ringo Starr, the most rubbish of all Beatles, while the film itself riffs on The Graduate and the films of Woody Allen. Garden State is perhaps a more realistic comparison, another Sundance launch and another fine, affecting debut. Still, I hope it gets the attention it deserves. When it's funny, it's hilarious, and when it's sad, it mines some very raw emotions. I don't think it will break the bank but it will be big in its own way; happy without being escapist and melancholy within a firm sense of perspective, it's the perfect indie for our times.