You can tell a lot about how people perceive a movie from the one word reviews they hear from their friends. For 500 Days Of Summer, the words are “weird,” “quirky,” and “odd.” I guess those are synonyms of “original.” 500 Days seems to have brought Indie Phobia out of mainstream movie goers. Sure, the story is not told chronologically, there is a dance break near the middle of the film, and yes, it has a hipster soundtrack not unlike Juno or Garden State (shutter). But this film doesn’t use these pieces as gimmicks, rather as devices to help translate the feeling of a break-up from your heart right onto the big screen.
500 Days is not driven by narrative so much as it is driven by emotion. The film acts just like a jilted lover, doing its best to try and put all the pieces together to figure out what went wrong. It does not flow based on days, but rather moments, and moments that are true to anyone who has been through the process of courtship into relationship into sunken ship.
It’s that attention to emotional detail that drives the entire film. We are there for the awkward first attempt of conversation, the first connection (through The Smiths, natch), and the first weird awkward pause. Summer (the insanely lovable Zooey Deschanel) and Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, proving he can do no wrong) are outside of a bar, facing each other, as both of their heads are seemingly kept there by the camera’s frame. What follows is a two minute scene highlighted by the most miniscule of small talk and the ever-present space between the two characters. You know this feeling. It’s the “should I or shouldn’t I make a move?” space when people who are attracted to one another, but aren’t sure how attracted the other person is to them. It lingers. It becomes uncomfortable.
When neither can take it any longer, they walk away, unfulfilled. Of course they do, just like you and your guy or gal did. Even when they finally consummate their relationship and the movie turns into a full-on musical dance number, it does not feel too far removed from a person’s actual feelings when they finally get with the apple of their eye. Sure, Tom’s singing a Hall and Oates song with 50 background dancers, and that’s fairly impossible to pull off in public with strangers, but what resonates the most is Tom’s demeanor, his smile, the jump in his step.
Of course, this attention to externalizing feelings onto film aren’t just reserved for sunshine and cupcake time. Early on in the film (and late in the life of the love affair), Summer is trudging through IKEA while Tom turns one of the handles on a display sink. Tom remarks how the faucet doesn’t work, looking for Summer to play back at him, while she walks away as if she’s a mother not amused by her child’s antics. It comes off as an odd thing for Tom to do, until we flash back to the couple right as they begin seeing each other, in the midst of a full play-act where the IKEA is their home. What was once awkward is now heartbreaking, as the old tricks just aren’t working anymore. In a conventional movie, this connection would not be nearly as powerful, with something like two hours between the original scene and the call back.
The most brilliant use of this kind of storytelling comes after Tom and Summer break-up (not a spoiler). She sees him, right as he’s starting to try and reconcile his life after she’s left it, and invites him to a party. The screen is split down the middle. To the left, what he assumes will happen, punctuated by him sweeping her off her feet. Then, to the right, is reality. The effect works even better as they begin almost in lock-step, from the time Summer opens the door to let Tom in. There are moments that the left side will echo the right, but increasingly, as the scenes go on and diverge, they just become radically different, both in time as well as situation. The left side ends happily. The right ends, well, the way it has to.
That’s the kicker: this is not a romantic film, although it’s filled with romance. It’s not a whodunnit, because the answer is given right from the onset. Their fate is understood and discussed at the onset: he believes in love and wants a long term relationship, she doesn’t believe and doesn’t want to be attached. But still, Tom pursues, thinking that maybe he can change her mind, and we follow along hoping against hope that she does the same, even though we too know the outcome.
Sometimes you just have to set logic aside and go with your heart, even when it’s dumb to do so. So put your logic aside and go feel this movie.
note: not sure I recommend any of the references for this post (especially the first 20 minutes of Juno, but that’s not for this post to discuss)