As a film enthusiast you're always on the lookout for innovation in films - not specifically for films which move the goalposts and redefine our notions of cinema, but for those which take something well-worn and familiar and challenge it for a new audience. With this in mind, there is nothing that can get one's gander up more than a film which claims or thinks that it is being inventive, when in fact the merest glance beneath its surface shows that it is nothing of the sort.
(500) Days of Summer comes at you with claims of being a genuine postmodern love story, an Annie Hall for the Twitter generation, or a rom-com for people who genuinely hate rom-coms. While it may not have the putridly glossy veneer of Sex and the City, the film ultimately shoots itself in the foot by being too kooky for its own good, and too structurally self-conscious to feel genuine. While there are still ideas and moments which sparkle, for the most part it feels disappointingly hollow.
There's no denying that the makers of (500) Days of Summer had their hearts in the right place when setting out. In an age where cinema is increasingly and ever more cynically geared to the interests of teenage boys, romantic comedies or dramas with believable female protagonists are harder and harder to come by. The majority of contemporary romantic comedies are either predictable rehashes of stuff from the 1980s and 1990s, or vacuous vessels for product placement, offering women supposed material satisfaction in place of some more permanent form of happiness or self-esteem.
Marc Webb's film is at its strongest when it attempts to puncture that self-contained, pre-packaged form of contentment. Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes greetings cards for a living, and struggles to remain optimistic or positive about the prospect of love in generalr. In one of the film's best scenes, he stands up in the middle of a meeting and lets rip about how hollow and meaningless love and happiness have become. Our culture has become so orientated around 'events', seeing emotion as something to be conveyed through commerce, that we are losing our ability to genuinely feel affection or understand each other.
Somewhere within (500) Days of Summer, there is an edgier, more adventurous film which wants to use this premise to completely deconstruct the modern notion of love and romance. There is the potential within this material for something as scabrous and poisonous as Heathers, a ferociously funny film which ripped into the John Hughes view of high school by making you both squirm and howl with laughter. But try as he might, Webb can't seem to bring this desire to the surface for more than a few moments at a time. For all its claims of being left-field, indie-spirited and unconventional, (500) Days of Summer is structurally all too similar to the films whose clichés it claims to subvert.
The single biggest problem with the film is that its structure of shuffled timeframes doesn't work. The film occupies the same kind of ground as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, trying to depict or capture the seemingly random way in which memory works within the context of a failed romantic relationship. But where Michel Gondry used the shuffled structure with great intelligence, confounding our expectations and getting us to question our own memories, Marc Webb treats it as a gimmick, as little more than a device to distract from the conventional elements of the story.
This lack of confidence in the use of non-linear narrative is shown by the presence of a narrator. Having a narrator in any kind of story gives a feeling of certainty to the direction and outcome of the plot. This is even true of film noir, where an unreliable narrator makes us certain that we should not trust anyone. When you have a film which sells itself on being free-spirited and unpredictable, you don't want any creative element which would suggest otherwise. The narration here is as pointless as the narration in The Big Lebowski; it cheapens the experience by introducing choreography into an atmosphere of spontaneity.
In terms of the central relationship, there isn't a great deal about either Tom or Summer which hasn't been covered in some depth before. Dynamically they're very similar to the main characters in Annie Hall: Joseph Gordon-Levitt may not be as neurotic or self-hating as Woody Allen, but Zoeey Deschanel is frequently as off-the-wall (and as annoying) as Diane Keaton. The idea of the relationship being important despite the fact that boy and girl do not end up together has been handled more conclusively in several other films. I don't recall either Annie Hall or Gregory's Girl having such a clunker of a final scene.
The familiar elements of (500) Days of Summer keep coming to the fore as the film moves forward (and backward). The conversations surrounding musical taste are essentially the same as the arguments in Stephen Frears' High Fidelity, but with an indie gloss on top (in other words, substitute any other band for 'The Smiths' and you're home free). Summer may claim that romance is dead like it's a novel concept, but she is essentially playing the Billy Crystal role in When Harry Met Sally..., being the sceptical side of a relationship which treads on the edge of friendship. There's nothing wrong with making a love story with familiar scenes and plot points, but it helps if the film is happy with admitting this, rather than constantly avoiding the issue so that it can continue claiming to be original.
One of the problems with the indie genre is that it attempts to compensate for the ordinary, often dull nature of its stories with unbridled levels of kookiness. While (500) Days of Summer isn't exactly off the radar, it contains any number of moments which will send the less tolerant among us running for cover. Some of the sillier romantic scenes are funny, like Summer's quip about her high school nickname, or the couple frolicking around in Ikea and remarking that "there's a Japanese family in our bathroom". But Deschanel's impromptu singing and the drunken karaoke scenes which follow are a clear sign of the plot running out of steam. And that's not to mention the completely misjudged musical number, which is closer to High School Musical than Singing in the Rain.
The final, and most surprising, problem is the film's lack of interest in the motivations of its female character. While Tom gets his fair share of backstory about failed relationships, and those of his male workmates for comparison, we get no real indication of what has made Summer who she is, and why she behaves towards men in the way she does. One could argue that this is symptomatic of the genre as a whole, with the film becoming less of a rom-com than a bromance that happens to have girls in. But that does not excuse the lack of intrigue surrounding Summer, for which Zooey Deschanel must take some of the blame. Regardless of how underwritten she is, you cannot make us care about someone by staring doe-eyed into middle distance for two hours.
The other performances in the film are a little more promising. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proved his action chops in Brick and Inception, and he does the best he can with a role which requires him to be constantly either in a mood or blank-faced wonder. A pre-Kick-Ass Chloe Moretz is thoroughly impressive as Tom's worldly-wise younger sister, with both actor and character having wisdom beyond their years without looking like they are trying to play younger than themselves. And Clark Gregg is convincing as Tom's boss, coming across as creepy and unsettling without going over-the-top.
(500) Days of Summer is a disappointing and deeply overrated addition to the rom-com genre. When stripped of all its hype and kookiness, it is essentially Annie Hall with shuffled timeframes, half the brains and less than half the conviction. Had Marc Webb the guts to risk being unpopular, and deconstruct the notion of modern love head on, it might have been more memorable, distinctive and enjoyable. One hopes that he will do a better job when dealing with Peter Parker.