Judge Patrick Bromley has his hands full with 90 Days of Winter.
Our review of (500) Days of Summer, published December 22nd, 2009, is also available.
This is not a love story. This is a story about love.
The best romantic comedy of 2009 gets an excellent high definition release courtesy of Fox.
Facts of the Case
(500) Days of Summer is a movie about a doomed relationship told in fragments, jumping from the dizzyingly happy beginnings to the devastating breakup and back again. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Killshot) is a greeting card writer who meets and instantly falls for Summer (Zooey Deschanel, Yes Man), a hip, carefree spirit not looking for anything serious. Surely, that dynamic couldn't lead to heartbreak.
I can't fault critics of Marc Webb's 2009 romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer who claim that the movie is too stuffed with hipster cuteness and gimmicky, first-movie techniques. Webb heaps so much self-conscious style on the movie, creating film school setpiece after film school setpiece (ranging from a musical number/dance sequence to a scene recalling an old French movie to scenes that break the fourth wall to animated sequences) that its easy to become numb to all the Smiths t-shirts and Pixies songs and cleverness and turn yourself off to what the movie has to offer. I don't agree with that position—I'm aware of the self-conscious quirks, and really like the movie not just in spite of but because of them—but I can at least see where people are coming from. What I can't abide is the contingent of critics who claim that the film is hollow and not about anything—an updated but empty remake of the great Annie Hall. (500) Days of Summer is a very good movie about two people that shouldn't be together, and that's not the kind of romantic comedy we're often treated to. Just because two young people fall in love doesn't mean it will work, no matter how hard one of the participants tries. Zooey Deschanel's Summer never leads her romantic counterpart on, and is never less than totally honest about who she is and what she wants. It's just that her boyfriend only hears what he wants to hear, manufacturing love where it doesn't exist. Haven't we all done that in the past?
First-time feature director Webb was trained on music videos, and it shows; (500) Days of Summer is filled with quirky, stand-alone set pieces that play like little short films (or music videos), and it's easy to see where Webb's occasional style-over-substance impulses take over. But I could also argue that if you're going to have a film that's this modern and geared toward a newer generation of moviegoers (like it or not, this is where movies are heading)—both in the way that it synthesizes a host of romantic comedies that have come before and in its embrace of kitchen-sink filmmaking—at least it's nice to have one as classy and well-crafted as (500) Days of Summer. After all, one viewer's gimmickry is another's inventiveness. I find myself somewhere between the two camps: aware of the many show-offy quirks but often embracing them anyway. Sure, lots of movies have included left-field musical numbers, but if you don't at least smile as Gordon-Levitt's morning-after dance to "You Make My Dreams Come True" builds and swells, I'm not sure I want to know you (plus, it's got perhaps my favorite visual joke of 2009, which I won't spoil except to say that it involves Harrison Ford). The same can be said for a split-screen sequence contrasting Tom's expectations of the way an evening will go versus the reality. I see it for the film school trick it is, but that doesn't make it any less effective. I've been there, and the movie gets it just right.
Of course, the movie might really be a hollow exercise if not for the performances of Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, who transcend the indie-romcom dream team casting to create something real and utterly beliveable. It's particularly nice to see Levitt, who has slowly established himself as one of the best young actors of his generation, being able to play funny; like a lot of good actors, he's too often cast in dark, brooding and intense parts in other films. Here, he's perhaps the best male romantic comedy lead since John Cusack: he's got the same kind of integrity, the same intelligence and a similar ability to play the wounded romantic. It's a star-making performance. Deschanel is equally good, though you might not realize it at first; she may come off distant and somewhat blank, but that's the idea—we think we know her because of what Tom projects on her, but that's not who she is. It's a quiet, measured performance that's better the more times you see the film. Take my word for it.
The (500) Days of Summer Blu-ray boasts a beautiful 2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p transfer that plays to the film's visual strengths. Though an intentionally soft, muted film, the Blu-ray of Summer offers a lot of nice detail, warm skin tones (and this is a movie where skin—particularly Deschanel's—plays a big part, so it's important that it look lovely) and a strong sense of depth. There's not much that's particularly striking about the transfer, but that's a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers and the Blu-ray honors those intentions. Sometimes, that's the best you could hope for. Noise reduction, edge enhancement and other intrusions really aren't apparent; it's a smooth ride the whole way through. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track isn't called upon to do much given the demands of the film, but dialogue is presented clearly and cleanly and the numerous terrific pop songs on the soundtrack are given their due. It's a pleasant track that's never distracting.
Director Webb, star Gordon-Levitt and writers Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter sit down for a funny, informal commentary track that's a little light on production background—which is actually ok, as I'm a little burned out on technical, nuts-and-bolts commentaries. This track makes up for it by having all the participants share their own real-life stories (a number of scenes in the movie are based on personal experience) and offer insight into the characters and their motivations. It's neat to hear them dispute what characters are thinking and what they should or shouldn't do, and they always speak with a good deal of humor. It's a relaxed, interesting commentary.
Up next is roughly 15 minutes of deleted scenes, playable with optional commentary by Webb, Gordon-Levitt, Weber and Neustadter. While (500) Days of Summer doesn't need to be any longer than it is, any of these cut scenes would have been a welcome inclusion. By breaking scenes down individually, you really begin to see he way that Webb worked some sort of visual or storytelling gimmick into each scene; while I found it helps keep things fresh from moment to moment, it also helps make a stronger case for the film's detractors (you know, the people that hate love and romance. Also, joy. And kittens. Probably America and freedom, too). I was happy to see the scene where Tom boards a bus upon which every passenger is Summer among the excised material; I remembered it from the trailer and was disappointed when I didn't see it in the finished movie.
A half-hour "making-of" featurette called "Not a Love Story" is pretty great, once you can make it past all of the interview subjects talking about how "unconventional" the movie is (yes, in a romantic comedy climate of films like The Ugly Truth, (500) Days of Summer is unconventional, but it's more pretending to break the mold than it is actually breaking it). Another featurette, "Summer at Sundance," covers the film's debut at the famous film festival, where it received a very warm reception. Four shorter featurettes "making-of" featurettes and two Fox Movie Channel Presents (one focusing on Gordon-Levitt, the other on Deschanel) pieces are also included. Perhaps the strangest supplemental feature is a short "cinemash" between Summer and Sid and Nancy, featuring Gordon-Levitt as Nancy and Deschanel as Sid Vicious. It's amusing—particularly considering the conversation about Sid and Nancy that takes place in the film—but also pretty odd.
Rounding out the generous selection of bonus features are two music videos ("Sweet Disposition" by the Temper Trap and "Bank Dance" by Deschanel, directed by Webb), some enjoyable interviews with the film's two stars, a collection of storyboards, the original audition tapes and some bonus trailers. Sadly, the terrific trailer for (500) Days of Summer has been left off the disc.
Up until its last few months, 2009 was a terrific year for movies, with at least one standout entry in every genre that was unique in its own way. (500) Days of Summer was the year's romantic comedy (no, it wasn't The Proposal; if you believe that you may have wasted your time reading this review), bolstered by lots of indie-movie slickness and two wonderful performances from the leads. It's refreshingly original for a movie so clichéd. Or is it clichéd, for a movie so original?
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