One of the best romantic films of 2009 arrives on DVD. It's a brutally honest, brutally funny look at love and relationships from a guy's point of view. And guys don't like romantic comedies. So it isn't one. To be clear right up front, the title (500) Days of Summer isn't some witty metaphor about sunshine and happiness. It's a count of days in the relationship our main character has with a woman named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Said leading man is Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a failed architect who became a greeting-card writer and, more importantly, a hopeless romantic due to (as the narrator tells us) listening to too much British pop music as a kid and a complete misunderstanding of The Graduate. Tom's convinced the new girl in the office is his soulmate, the true love he's been destined to spend his life with. Summer, on the other hand... well, she's a bit more of a modern woman who doesn’t want to deal with relationships or labels like “girlfriend” or “boyfriend." In her mind, true love is just a fantasy.
This is where this film gets interesting, because (500) Days of Summer is completely non-linear, leaping back and forth through the year and a half or so of their relationship. Most movies would be about the awkward, fumbling attempts for this unlikely couple to get together and live happily ever after. We're not even 10 minutes into this story and we not only know Tom's going to get the girl, we know he's going to lose her, too. He meets her on day one, and then we immediately jump to day 290, where his two best friends (Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler) and his little sister Rachel (Chloe Grace Moretz) have to convince him his life isn't over because Summer has abruptly ended their relationship and (God forbid) told Tom he's her best friend. Then it's back to those first days to watch them grow interested in each other, and forward again to follow Tom as he sinks deeper into depression, recovers, and decides to win Summer back.
It's easy to see why publicists were so desperate to avoid calling this film a romantic comedy when it came out. I mean, most movies that get that label are barely funny, hardly romantic, and tend to follow a formula that's probably available through the Coca-Cola company at this point. We'll have the man, the woman, the odd thing keeping them apart, the goofy friends, the random sex act with a food item, the misunderstanding which would go away if only one would talk and the other would listen, and then wham -- we all live happily ever after.
No, despite all the laughs in this roller-coaster relationship, this film really goes beyond an easy label. As the narrator says, this is not a love story. It's a story about love. And love isn't always pretty and nice. In fact, if you look at it statistically, far more relationships fail than succeed. Which is the idea at the heart of this little tale. There are times love is the greatest thing in the world, and there are times we've all wished we could cut out whatever part of us it resides in.
One of the first things to note with this movie is that it's entirely Tom's story. For far too long, we men have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to romance films. They usually get either deep, melodramatic parts or they're just in the film to be the love interest for the female lead. As played by Gordon-Levitt, Tom's an average, believable guy, no more outstanding or sub-par than most of us. He's got a decent job he's not too thrilled with, a lot of dreams he's given up on as time has passed, and he's thrilled to be in love. He's someone we've all known, and someone more than a few of us have been.
Considering this view, it would've been easy for either the writers or director to fall back on simple stereotypes and make Summer a bitch. At first glance, she sure seems like one, and again, it's a romcom tradition. Tom has to be with the mean pretty girl so he'll recognize his true love waiting in the wings. There is no one waiting there, though, and as the story progresses that quick, shallow observation falls aside and we come to realize Summer's just a girl. She's not particularly cruel or cold. If anything, she's completely honest with Tom about what she wants out of their relationship and (we get the sense) a lot more fun than some of his previous relationships. Once he get some perspective on things, Tom (and the rest of us) start to see his overwhelming love may have blinded him to some things which should’ve been apparent from the start.
Which is why this movie is so great. It doesn't rely on the goofy sight gags and unlikely situations so many romcoms have grown dependent on. It's funny enough to see how Tom can be giddily listing off the things he loves about Summer one moment, and then loathing her in the next scene (a few hundred days later) for all the same reasons. We get to see all the high points and low points side by side, and most of us know from experience how similar they all are in retrospect. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber know there's enough humor in most relationships without having to shoehorn anything else in.
Well, okay, there's one big song-and-dance number, but it fits. No, seriously. You'll like it. [It's one of our favorite movie moments of the year, after all -- Ed.]
That really brings out a great final point. This movie has everything. At various points it's a musical, a documentary, a parody, a comedy, a romance, a bromance, and a coming-of-age story. It's the kind of filmmaking you wish we'd see more of, and it's a film worth watching just for the technical aspects of how these filmmakers pulled off such an amazing balancing act. There isn't much on this disk as far as special features. There's a fairly wide array of theatrical trailers, although the one for this movie somehow didn't make the cut. A few extended scenes and a single deleted one have some nice chuckles in them, but it's easy to see why they got trimmed from the final film.
Really, the only feature worth investigating is the commentary, where filmmakers Marc Webb, Scott Neustadter, and Michael Weber chat with leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They all talk about some of the personal relationship issues that became major parts of the film. They also debate a few interpretations of the film, including an interesting take on one of the final scenes that never would've crossed my mind in a million years if they hadn't brought it up. None of it is groundbreaking, but it's entertaining and, like the film itself, very honest.
Really, the film doesn't need much else. Some DVDs need to pack in a half dozen featurettes and bonuses to convince you they're worth buying. And some, like (500) Days of Summer don't need anything extra to be a good investment of your time and money.
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