(500) Days of Summer

I finally had a chance to catch this summer’s indie darling, (500) Days of Summer (IMDB), the feature debut from music video director, Marc Webb.  The film, through the story of greeting card author, Tom, and his girlfriend, Summer, at worst, offers a mature reflection on romance between two urban hipsters, and at its best, it serves, as A.O. Scott points out, as an effective rejoinder to some of the worst cliches of romantic comedy, at least until the film’s final sequence.  Instead of the childish, smut-loving guys (and the girls who indulge them) of The Hangover and Judd Apatow films, Tom and Summer’s romance seems somewhat more recognizable.  Add to that, a creative storytelling structure, in which Tom looks back at the five hundred days that mark his relationship with Summer, flashing back from day 488 to day 12 and then forward again (a technique Roger Ebert admires quite a bit), and it’s not difficult to understand why the film has been so well regarded among critics and fans alike.

It’s also a film that is fluent in the language of indie culture, one that allows the signifiers of indie credibility to speak about and through Tom and Summer.  Both of them, as children of the 1980s, have posters of The Smiths’ Viva Hate cover on their walls.  Summer’s vintage clothes and haircut straight out of ’60s Paris helps segue neatly into a black-and-white Nouvelle Vague-inspired sequence, while the couple’s forays into a company karaoke party allow them to slum by performing and listening to covers to bad ’80 songs from Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”  In the language of (500) Days, this allows Tom and Summer to distance themselves from the vapid greeting card publisher where they work, treating the manufactured sentiment less with a sneer than with a bit of bemused eye-rolling.

Tom and Summer are also able, during several key scenes, to both embrace and mock modern constructions of domesticity when they spend leisurely afternoons running through an Ikea store, sitting on sofas and lounging in a fake bedroom, joking about the customers who watch curiously nearby.  If the banal furnishings of the local Ikea made Brad Pitt and Edward Norton want to fight, Tom and Summer, instead choose to play a semi-ironic version of house, lounging on the couch, playing with a remote control that does nothing and turning on sinks where no water comes out.  The scenes seem to suggest that the couple is mocking the Ikea-inspired American Dream of traditional bourgeois romance, although it’s clear that Tom, who ignores Summer’s protestations that she’s only looking for a fling, clearly seeks out some version of this idealized life.  And although the film depicts Tom and Summer post-breakup, as Tom tries to make sense of what happened, Zooey Deschanel succeeds in making Summer both likable and honest enough to prevent her from seeming overly villainous.

And yet, despite these flourishes, I found myself becoming frustrated with the film in places, wondering if the film’s “indie” elements and its ironic nods to 80s kitsch (the film threw in Knight Rider and Hall and Oates for good measure).  Like Brian Orndorf, although his reaction is far more negative than mine, I sometimes wondered if these moments weren’t a little too calculated in places.  In particular, the film uses Tom’s dream of becoming an architect to introduce a hand-drawn aesthetic.  Tom is frequently seen sketching sections of the Los Angeles skyline and pointing out the handicraft of many of the city’s buildings.  These sketches provide the backdrop for (500) Days’ many transitions and replay what has become something of a cliche of contemporary indie, the use of a hand-made aesthetic, one that seems to be a response both to the big-budget Hollywood features and (quite possibly) to the encroachment of digital media into aesthetic artifacts.  A similarhandmade approach dominates the work of Michel Gondry and was a major design principle in this summer’s Away We Go (a film I’ll admit that I liked quite a bit).

I don’t think it makes sense to talk about such flourishes in terms of the language of “co-optation,” of accusing a Fox Searchlight film of taking something that is authentically “indie” and then marketing it to naive audiences, so accusing the film of lacking authenticity seems to miss something crucial about it, at least as the use of handicraft plays out in a commercial project such as (500) Days.  I’m currently reading Kaya Oakes’ engaging history of indie, Slanted and Enchanted, so these definitional questions about indie are in the forefront of my mind, so my reaction to the film is somewhat torn between appreciating the film’s thoughtful engagement with constructions of modern hipster romance and frustration at what, in some places, seemed like a cynical recycling of some of the more fashionable tropes of handicraft as an oppositional stance.

4 Comments »

  1. Annie Petersen Said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

    Not much to add — just want to suggest Feminist Music Geek’s look (criticism) of the film’s use of indie music (and its corresponding aesthetic(s)), available here: http://feministmusicgeek.com/2009/08/10/500-excruciating-days-of-summer/

  2. Chuck Said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    This is a really good read, one that makes mine look lazy and rushed by comparison. She raises some good points, though, especially about the pseudo-thrift-store-chic and some of the overly precious indie references. It’s hard for the film not to feel overly calculated, but I do think there are some enjoyable moments.

  3. Alyx Vesey Said,

    September 8, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Chuck (and Annie)!

  4. The Chutry Experiment » Julia, Adam, and, Summer Said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    [...] that Tom can find his path as an architect.  I didn’t really address this point in detail in my original review, but I think Pollitt raises a valid point about the [...]

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