(500) Days of Summer (Blu-ray)(Fox Home Entertainment, 12.22.2009)
Somewhere between the age when kids learn to speak and the age when they stop being cute, they develop a lethal, extremely offputting habit: manipulating people with their cuteness. There's that knowing glint in their eyes. They know they're cute and they know they can use it to get stuff. That's Zooey Deschanel in a nutshell. For a while, the strong-willed, opinionated awkwardness of her screen persona (in movies like Mumford, Almost Famous and All the Real Girls) was a breath of fresh air, but then she got comfortable and settled into the relaxed, carefree cuteness of Audrey Hepburn, but with the crucial lack of Hepburn's foreign discomfort. Deschanel always seems comfortable onscreen, casually cueing the responses of the audience and her fellow characters. This cuteness is lethal and in (500) Days of Summer it's supposed to be.
Therein lies the paradox of (500) Days of Summer. (Almost) every weakness in this movie is there for a pretty good reason, but the film walks a fine line between satirizing its own cuteness and taking it seriously. Maybe I'm being overly-sensitive to this peculiar brand of ironic sincerity, but to my mind this film features a level of over-the-top genre pastiche not seen since Hot Fuzz, but unlike that broad, wildly overrated misfire, the filmmakers behind (500) Days make some effort to keep things moderately credible.
More than any other genre, the romantic comedy is all about re-assuring and pandering to an audience. I guess the thinking goes that people suffer through enough romantic frustration and disappointment in real life, why subject them to more in movies? It's not that the truth is inherently negative (it's not), but it's painfully apparent when a filmmaker lacks belief in the cheerful positivity they're dramatizing. With that in mind, there's something insidious -- and very dishonest -- about (500) Days of Summer's eagerness to please, even if it is rooted in (have-it-both-ways) genre critique.
Appropriately enough, the film gains credibility whenever the romance onscreen goes awry, but the moments of standard issue romcom lack conviction. From the obnoxious, GAP ad-looking musical number to the laughably re-assuring ending, virtually every happy moment in this movie is a dated, well-worn romantic comedy cliche. Of course, what distinguishes this movie from the average romantic comedy is its self-awareness. So every time we scowl at another agonizing faux-hipster chat about The Smiths or Ringo Starr, there's a safety net in our suspicion that the filmmakers might share our irritation. But their romcom skepticism doesn't go nearly far enough.
Critics and audiences cut this movie all kinds of slack -- presumably because the filmmakers show some wit in their inventive, ironic handling of the genre -- but even if the film's most cloying qualities are intentional, they're still cloying. Which is not to suggest that this film is an outright failure, but its unrepentant glossiness and utterly cartoonish, one-note sitcom depiction of the world these characters inhabit spits in the face of truth... repeatedly.
Director Marc Webb makes sure every shot is polished within an inch of its life (how appropriate that he's now in talks to direct the next Spider-Man movie). You'll swear you're watching a music video because nothing in this movie is spontaneous and everything looks like it was shot by Michael Bay's slightly artier cousin. On the plus side, this means the good ideas are executed with tremendous precision.
If not for the film's half dozen moments of genuine emotional truth -- which make their general absence all the more frustrating -- the film's merit would be completely rooted in irony. The filmmakers are so preoccupied with cleverness for its own sake that the messiness of emotion starts to feel inappropriate and even irrelevant to the world of these characters.
The filmmakers are also guilty of appropriating every pop cultural artifact they can get its hands-on, from the aforementioned Smiths and Ringo Starr references to a shamelessly misguided use of The Graduate in a key sequence. It's not that pop cultural references are necessarily a problem, but this material is poorly and arbitrarily integrated into the film. It should also be noted that Deschanel's tears are completely inappropriate and/or premature in the sequence involving The Graduate. If she's a closet romantic crying because Elaine abandoned "the make-out king," she's utterly clueless and if she's crying about the uncertainty of Ben and Elaine's future, she clearly cries about ten seconds too soon. In any case, thanks for attaching all kinds of annoying baggage to the end of The Graduate, guys.
To the film's credit, its much-discussed structuring device -- the filmmakers zigzag all over the five hundred days of the title -- is extremely effective in creating pointed juxtapositions and minimizing tedious connective material, which is another way of saying the screenwriters stumbled upon the greatest screenwriting short cut of all time, undeniably making their lives a whole lot easier. Also on the plus side, JGL and Deschanel are generally quite likable, if a bit too cocky, and Clark Gregg gives another one of his borderline transcendent turns as a pleasantly combative authority figure (see In Good Company).
If you're a fan of this hit-and-miss cute-fest, there's good news: this disc is full of extras (some of which are exclsuive to the Blu-ray), including a commentary by Webb, Gordon-Levitt and the writers, deleted/extended scenes, audition footage, storyboards, a pair of music videos, interview footage, trailers, a weird cross-dressing Sid & Nancy tribute and various featurettes. Why don't genuinely accomplished movies ever get discs like this? -- Jonathan Doyle