‘Offbeat’ romantic comedy, (500) Days Of Summer serves as a kind of catharsis for writer Scott Neustadter, following the dubious maxim quoted in the film, that ‘the best way to get over a woman is to turn her into literature.’ The quote is actually one of modernist author and notorious bastard, Henry Miller, and the film opens with a rather aggressively Miller-ish disclaimer that flashes up on screen: “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely co-incidental… Especially you, Jenny Beckman… Bitch.”
Bombastically proclaimed by the Daily Mail as “the greatest revenge in the history of cinema”, the film is a dance back and forth throughout various days in the year long relationship and subsequent emotional fallout of Tom Hanson and Summer Finn, a couple in their mid-twenties, employed at a greeting cards company in LA. Pastel animated scenes (of a gradually withering tree – bleurgh) act as chapter headings in the narrative – Day 340, Day 20, etc – letting us know which of the ‘days of Summer’ we’re in. “Tom, I know you think she was the one, but I don’t,” says Tom’s sage-like younger sister, Rachel. “Next time you look back, I think you should look again.” This ‘looking back’ is the film – a retrospective on a relationship.
The film opens as Rachel Hanson jumps off her bike, walks into Tom’s apartment (where Tom stands, smashing crockery on a sideboard with a blank look on his face), and says, ‘Right, start from the beginning’ (which obviously he does not). ‘The beginning’ alone however, is enough to give anyone cause for concern. Tom and Summer are riding a lift together at their work, when her reaction to hearing ‘Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ blasting out of Tom’s headphones, is to sing a couple of lines of the song and yell at him, “Oh yeah, The Smiths. I really like The Smiths.” Tom’s reaction is, “HOLY SHIT.” This, in itself, spells trouble. Honestly, who does that? And who gets that excited about someone liking The Smiths?
As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall (to which (500) Days owes a great debt) whilst sifting through the pieces of his own failed relationship, ‘I have a hyperactive imagination. My mind tends to jump around a little.’ Tom Hanson’s memory is also rather subjective. Thus, the film is able to (despite being lauded as ‘realistic’ by critics with a bar undoubtedly lowered from the week The Ugly Truth and The Proposal came out) escape the restrictions of a realistic narrative, and show its audience Tom’s warped reminiscence of the failed relationship he obsesses over. As a result, his post-coital morning walk to work become a Gene Kelly-esque musical number, high-fiving passers-by and being carried through the park on the shoulders of euphoric supporters, and his crushing post-breakup lows see him casting himself as the moody hero of Godard and Bergman-esque, black and white French films. These odd little vignettes are interesting enough to draw away from the MIND-NUMBING BANALITY of their karaoke/Ikea/job/bar day-to-day.
Summer is underdrawn (as you would expect from a film penned by ‘the ex’), and Tom is, to be honest, a bit whiny. Someone once said that the act of reminiscence involves a necessary splitting of the self, which becomes both the person in the memory, and the person doing the remembering. Unfortunately for Scott Neustadter and Tom Hanson, two parts of the same whole, both these people are tools. Funny at times and gratingly annoying at others, the film is redeemed by its inventive direction and the almost disturbingly likable Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. The soundtrack is deftly used, and as indie as you would expect, including standard ‘quirky couple necking to Feist’ scene, and montages so cutesy they could be an extended advert for mobile phone tariffs.
In contrast to which, The Time Traveler’s Wife (sic) consists of a film that tries its darndest to murder some excellent subject matter. Having been described variously in the film press as ‘sentimental slush’ and ‘a bulletproof concept’, this rather cack-handed film is carried by what is a fantastic skew on the traditional, linear romance – a familiar concept in unfamiliar surroundings. Rather than a relationship retrospective like (500) Days, Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire find themselves in the unfortunate position of having a kind of ‘future memory’ of their life together, due to Bana’s character’s genetic abnormality, ‘chronic impairment’, as in his liability to spontaneously time travel at any moment – a bit of a pain in a marriage.
Henry’s time travel is involuntary, and he becomes ‘unstuck’ in time, jumping back and forth between moments in the course of his life with Clare, played by a doe-eyed Rachel McAdams. Clare, it should be explained, acts as a kind of metaphysical anchor for Henry’s jumps – she is the place (and time) that he always returns to. The effect is that the couple (and the audience), experience the relationship out of sequence, but whereas in (500) Days, this was a knowing, formal device designed to emphasise various ironies and flaws in Tom’s relationship, in Time Traveler’s Wife it goes some way towards making the whole thing more poignant. The couple’s wedding for example, that Henry disappears from, missing the ceremony but returning just in time to slow-dance to a waltz version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (sung by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew for some reason, who winks at the camera before presumably wandering off to collect his ‘random cameo’ award). Or the traumatic experience of gestating a child liable to time-travel out of its mother at any moment.
The film performed well at the box office, surprisingly – the demographic of people who enjoy both a Rachel ‘The Notebook‘ McAdams romance and time travel is, one assumes, not massive. But then, it completely ignores any of the scientific aspects of time travel, concentrating instead on social effects of the condition. The genre mix is what is interesting though, and it elevates what is essentially a standard relationship between two bookish New Yorkers into something more. Time Traveler’s Wife is essentially two films – a romance, and a science fiction movie. The film is as odd as its well-crafted (if unneccessarily long) source novel, although it tries to squeeze an awful lot into 90 minutes, and as a result, is rather heavy-handed at times. The script is contrived, the supporting cast all but ignored, and everything is spelt out for the viewer in a rather patronising way (both protagonists are constantly saying “I know this must be weird for you”, which is INFURIATING). There are some beautiful moments though, and while (500) Days Of Summer is an irritating subject carried out with panache, Time Traveler’s Wife is an interesting idea, carried out with the filmic equivalent of a big, fat hammer.