Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Film Review: 500 Days of Summer

I had pretty high hopes for 500 Days of Summer. And no, I'm not putting the "500" in parentheses, which is stupid and pretentious. But the pretension of the parentheses actually resembles the film itself.

I have a complex relationship with romantic films. Although people are often surprised when they hear this, I actually love a good romance. If done correctly, it can be wonderful. I look for films that delve into real human emotions, witty conversation, humor, telling both sides of the story, or some combination of the above. Sadly, few American romantic films do any of this. The brilliance of Annie Hall and Manhattan aren't their jokes, though of course these are great. It's the beauty of the romantic stories Woody Allen could tell at this point in his career. It's hardly fair to compare other films to these, or to the great films of Eric Rohmer for example, but those are the gold standard. One would like to see romantic films at least try.

And I thought 500 Days of Summer would try. Instead, it relies on cliche after cliche in its effort to tell a hipster love story. The hipster part is central; in fact, this seems to be the point of the film. The use of split screens on multiple occasions, the retro dresses Zooey Deschanel wears, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's skinny ties, the construction of Ikea as the ultimate cool place to shop, the music, the use of non-white people as silent backgrounds for their romance, this is painful stuff. Director Marc Webb even updates the Annie Hall-style monologues to the camera, but to utterly pointless effect. Moreover, the cliches don't stop in the realm of hipsterism. The film also suffers from cliches of the lazy filmmaker, which is even less forgivable. The tired use of a narrative for background is a prime example. Many commentators have complained that Gordon-Levitt's little sister calling him a "pussy" feels false and unnecessarily crude. I totally disagree with this, but what I do find problematic is the old device of relying on a child to be a wise advice-dispensing psychologist. How many times have we seen this?

The film is not a complete failure. Some of the scenes work really well, particularly those heavy in dialogue. The actors are generally fine, even though the episodic nature of the script leaves parts of the romance quite underdeveloped. The script also undermines the power of the romance. It was hard to be anything more than a distant observer of what Gordon-Levitt felt because the script was superficial too often.

Finally, a real weakness of the film is that it is only told from one perspective. Deschanel comes in and out of the story, but you never get much of a sense of her character as a person, except for one really annoying black and white piece with narration, a total failure of a scene for which she is not to blame. Why can't writers and directors tell these stories from a woman's perspective? Or both parties equally? She seemed at least as sympathetic as him, but we don't really know in the end. Instead, it was another story where a woman breaks a man's heart and he struggles to get over it. This is a rich mine of film, but there's great gender imbalance in these stories. Of course, there's an entirely other genre of romantic comedy related to this, but these movies almost try to be terrible; certainly there's little as witty as Annie Hall or Knocked Up or even 500 Days of Summer coming from a woman's perspective. This is no small reason why Juno is so freaking great--women are the heroes in a movie that tells a smart and funny story.