Friday, July 24, 2009

"500 Days Of Summer" Movie + Soundtrack Review

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True life: We’re in a recession. Talk about the worst possible time to graduate. Nobody is hiring and all those years of unpaid internships that made you feel like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada mean nothing. Impressive resume … too bad it’s worthless. At this rate, it feels like you need to be a Rhodes Scholar to be one of those dog walkers with eighteen leashes wrapped around your wrists and pooper scoopers in hand in Central Park.

Yes, times are tough. Which is why when I recommend that you spend another $25, you’ll probably just laugh at me. After all, $25 is enough to buy nearly a month’s worth of Ramen noodle dinners. With meals so scarce ever since you moved to the outer boroughs to escape Manhattan’s crazy housing costs (even though you’re still paying over $700 a month and setting your quarters aside for laundry) and every swipe of your debit card triggers anxiety that you might be hit by one more of those god-awful $35 overdraw fees, penny-saving has become your only means of survival in this big bad economy.

However, if you spend $25 on anything this month, spend it on these two items: a ticket to go see Fox Searchlight’s new film 500 Days Of Summer, and its accompanying soundtrack. Reuniting indie darlings Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel (the duo previously appeared together in 2001’s Manic) and directed by newcomer Marc Webb, this unconventional love story is possibly the most honest depiction of a romantic relationship to come out of Hollywood ever. While movies such as The Notebook act as fantasy representations of the love that people long for but seldom truly experience, 500 Days Of Summer serves as a reminder of what love really is, allowing anyone who has ever had his or her heart broken to relate to it.

The film tells the story of Tom (Gordon-Levitt), an aspiring architect who put his dreams on hold to make money as a greeting cards writer. Enter Summer (Deschanel), the woman of his dreams … or so he believes. At the very start of the film, an anonymous narrator brilliantly explains the contrasting characters:

“The boy, Tom, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met ‘the one.’ This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate. The girl, Summer, did not share this belief. Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things: the first was her long, dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing.”

A bit of foreshadowing about Summer’s ability to detach from loved things and loved ones easily? I think so!

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the love between Tom and Summer is one- sided. Summer clearly has strong feelings for Tom as well, no matter how much she tries to use her emotional walls to shield herself from them. This is made most apparent when, after a fight, she comes over to Tom’s apartment to apologize, although she insists they’re “just friends.” Her definition of what a relationship is does not correspond to Tom’s, creating a major dilemma in whatever pending label-less relationship transaction is occurring between the two of them.

What strikes me the most about this film is that it constantly plays off huge differences. Since the characters are polar opposites of one another, they offer a fascinating contrast. The movie jumps forward and backward in time, with the scenes opening up like chapters, each one labeled according to which of the 500 days of Tom’s infatuation for Summer it was. Going back and forth from when the two are a couple to when they have broken up allows the audience to view their “happy” days through a critical lens not often put to use during a romantic film. Knowing that they break up from the very beginning, the viewer can look for signs pointing to their looming downfall that Tom was too blinded by love to see.

The aftermath of a year and a half of a love gone awry is captured beautifully and accurately as the film pans from shots contrasting when Tom was content to when he was miserable and trying to win Summer back. Each scene of pleasure is immediately followed by a scene of pain, providing us with a harshly realistic “before” and “after” portrait of a bruised man. The morning after they have sex for the first time, for example, Tom is on top of the world and even breaks out into a dance sequence to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.” This campy and overly ecstatic scene sharply comes to an end when we see Tom walking out of an elevator in clothes that are clearly tattered and unwashed, with a sullen “I-haven’t-slept-in-two-weeks” look on his face.

Webb also does a fabulous job of making the viewers see Summer through Tom’s eyes. When Tom is describing her to his friends, for instance, it is not him that we see on screen, but rather the specific close-ups of Summer that display the fine details about her that his voiceover describes. A particularly memorable moment is when Tom and Summer first meet and a montage of Summer close-ups occur while Tom daydreams about her “heart shaped birthmark” and “cute laugh.” Later in the film, the same montage is shown except this time we hear Tom’s voice complaining how he hates her “cockroach shaped birthmark” and “annoying laugh.” This shows how neurologically he began to rip apart everything he loved about her in the first place. Even so, the film paints Summer in such a light that it is nearly impossible for audience members not to be in the same boat as Tom and fall in love with her too, making him an even more relatable character - because in some way, we too know what it feels like to long after this woman.

The film received a standing ovation and its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, making clear that it will not soon be forgotten. Similarly, its soundtrack sounds like someone sent in a request to to create a playlist of music with the ability to change your life. Webb carefully hand selected all the music for the film by what he calls “narrating through lyrics,” which results in a 16-track compilation that when listened to sequence, unfolds the entire film before your eyes.

The heaviest influence on this soundtrack is clearly The Smiths, one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Although they were a band for only a very brief stint (1982 - 1987 to be exact), their influence is undeniable. My personal favorite track of theirs, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” is actually the song that makes Tom’s character really fall for Summer in the first place. The song is playing loudly from Tom’s headphones while he and Summer are riding in an elevator together, which prompts Summer to comment that Tom has “good taste in music” before she starts singing along. It’s that moment where if it were a cartoon, Tom’s jaw would literally drop to the floor and he’d have to force himself to physically pick it back up.

The soundtrack also features another classic from The Smiths, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” The song’s longing lyrics and melancholy instrumentals are sprinkled throughout the film, emphasizing this haunting tale, which is essentially the story of wanting something out of one’s reach. While the soundtrack does include the original, it also closes with a cover of this song by none other than the lead herself, Zooey Deschanel. Her band, She & Him, a two-man group with monster of folk M.Ward, released one of the most exquisite albums of 2008, so having them cover The Smiths for the film made perfect sense. What makes this new version work is that it is not a carbon copy of the original, but is instead a reworked version of the track. The instrumentals are far simpler, giving the song a raw, stripped down, organic sound to it. Zooey’s vocals have also never seemed so vulnerable, as at one point it truly sounds like she may be crying while singing. It’s an incredibly dark yet beautiful reinterpretation of a song that could easily in itself be the soundtrack to a broken heart.

The Smiths are not the only music legends featured on the album. An often overlooked Simon & Garfunkel track entitled “Bookends” sneaks into the tracklisting between stellar tracks by Regina Spektor (“Hero”) and Wolfmother (“Vagabond”). Clocking in at under one minute and twenty seconds, the song serves as a testament to the genius of this iconic duo. It manages to be both soft and incredibly powerful—and, at the same time, incredibly heart wrenching. The song is also perfectly placed in the film during a pivotal moment of the plot, and it is here that Webb’s “narrating through lyrics” belief truly comes into focus.

Australian newcomers The Temper Trap deliver the catchiest song on the record with “Sweet Disposition,” an uptempo rock track that would have fit perfectly on the soundtrack to the 90’s film Cruel Intentions alongside “Every Me, Every You” by Placebo and “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim. Carla Bruni, the model-turned-singer-turned-wife-of-the-French-president, contributes “Quelqu’un M’a Dit,” an eerie and gloomy song of despair. Although the lyrics are in French, Bruni’s emotions speak louder than words, making the song sound like you’re listening to an aural guidebook to shattered hope. Webb chose this song because since there was such a communication barrier between Tom and Summer, he believed it was only appropriate to select a song that conveyed feelings rather than understandable words. Kudos for the symbolism, my friend.

The album also contains the undoubtedly best song Regina Spektor has recorded thus far, “Us,” from her Soviet Kitsch album. In fact, the piano part in that song inspired the score for the actual film. Also featured is an acoustic cover of The Pixies’ classic “Here Comes Your Man,” performed by Canadian singer/songwriter Meaghan Smith. Her take on the song, like She & Him’s take on The Smiths, is a soothingly fresh homage to the original, again taking something old to make it new again. “Here Comes Your Man” is actually featured twice, as the first time is during a drunken karaoke scene in which Tom gets up on stage to sing in order to impress Summer. Ah, the things we do for attention sometimes.

So, what do you get when you combine a sharply witty and honest screenplay with two of Hollywood’s most gifted young actors and add a soundtrack full of musical gems that will surely land it on numerous “best of 2009” lists at the end of the year? The answer: 500 Days Of Summer. It is hands down the best film of the year – yes, I’m saying “year” because I really doubt anything else will come out in the next five months even half as intelligent and entertaining as this movie. It’s brilliantly acted, phenomenally written and stealthily directed. Once it comes out, it will definitely become a worn-out DVD in my collection from watching it far more than I probably should. The soundtrack completes the unbeatable indie movie-soundtrack trilogy, placing it alongside the Garden State and Juno soundtracks. A great film, out-of this-world music—that’s 500 Days Of Summer. You can’t ask for more bang for your $25.

Like it? Buy the soundtrack here
500 Days Of Summer is currently in theaters