Despite the title, (500) Days of Summer is not about a sunny romance, as the narrator is quick to warn you. “This is not a love story,” he intones, and he’s probably referring to the routine heartbreak in movies that accompanies any belief in love. But he’s also right about the relationship at this movie’s core not being about love. See, there are two kinds of romantic comedies in this world: the ones that divide people into Men and Women, and the ones that don’t. (500) Days of Summer hastily identifies itself as one of the former, in a kitschy montage that narrates how Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the Man) believes in love, and how Zooey Deschanel (the Woman) turns heads wherever she goes. How are you supposed to react to a montage like that? He’s the guy of this movie, and she’s the girl: they’re going to fall in love.
Except they don’t. From Day (1) that Deschanel’s character waltzes into mopey office-cubicle hipster Tom’s life, his eyes follow her in slow-mo as it dawns upon him that she’s the girl of his dreams. Days later, when she identifies The Smiths through his headphones and gushes about the band, that’s confirms it. So when she keeps not asking him out, and later tells him that she isn’t looking for anything serious, it floats right past Tom’s rose-tinted sensors even as we’re clenching our fists in exasperation, and things go predictably downhill from there. (500) Days of Summer has been dubbed an anti-rom-com, but it deserves that label not because the two leads don’t end up together, but because it’s an unromantic study of infatuation at its most blinkered.
Once we have shorn the misleading connotations off the title, (500) Days of Summer is literally just about the five hundred days that Tom has known the Deschanel character. (Guess her name.) Well, no, not literally—the movie skips over the days when nothing happens, leaving something resembling a “greatest hits” compilation of Tom and Summer’s relationship. It also alternates back and forth along the timeline, steadily converging on the actual breakup. Some critics have noted that this is an accurate representation of the fragmented remembrance of romances past. More cynically, though, it’s a structure that well suits first-time feature director Marc Webb, whose experience lies in music videos.
Conspiring with the writers, cinematographer and editor, Webb orchestrates a fistful of engaging, standalone scenes with visual wit and tasteful music choices. A heartbroken Tom sits in a cinema, watching himself in famous Ingmar Bergman scenes. A split-screen of a party scene plays out the difference between Tom’s expections and reality. A documentary about finding love cuts from one familiar talking head to another, until it alights on Tom’s sullen, confused face. Part of the fun of these scenes, and Gordon-Levitt’s performance in them, derives from how they make light of his self-serious acting persona. Not that Gordon-Levitt is a stranger to comedies, being an alum from TV sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun and teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, but his acting revival in the past decade has been largely marked by such dour roles as his child-abused gay hustler in Mysterious Skin. The presence of numerals in (500) Days of Summer’s title might have been an unintended cue to Gordon-Levitt’s return here to his comic roots, but we still never expect a “serious thespian” to be game enough to re-enact that perennial scene where the guy, having gotten laid the night before, prances through the streets in afterglow and a silly grin. Except Gordon-Levitt does go there. And he dances. And interacts with animated birds. And sings.
Zooey Deschanel gets to show off that last item, more ingratiatingly than Gordon-Levitt, but that’s about it: the movie mires itself in Tom’s headspace, leaving Summer an unfortunate casualty of that narrowed perspective. We never get to know much about her as a person, though as an ideal we get plenty—nowhere more obvious as when we get a fractured montage of various close-ups on Summer, brandished once as a listing of what Tom loves about her, and then later as a listing of what he hates. The movie tends to be clever like this at Summer’s expense, but in the straight-up conversation scenes, Deschanel acquits Summer from the two extremes of angel and demon by being blunt about her character’s desire for no commitment. The approach makes Summer feel more real, mingling her honesty and frostiness, and it’s these moments that clearly signal Tom’s pathetic blindness to who she is. Ultimately, though, Summer’s under-writtenness impairs Deschanel’s battle against both her past typecasting as a fantasy girlfriend and her own gleaming irises and bubble cheeks, which give her the look of a porcelain doll. The script doesn’t help much either, trapping Summer into a caricature of defensive frigidity with an early throwaway line about her parents’ divorce, which I don’t think any conceivable actress can recuperate.
To its credit, the movie takes a few playful gambles on our understanding of Tom and Summer. One arrives at the centre of the movie’s converging timeline, and turns on our knowledge of The Graduate. If you haven’t seen that 1967 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, you might not get (500) Days of Summer’s reference to how Tom misreads its ending as romantic, while Summer bawls her eyes out as the movie affirms her belief that love can’t be the antidote to not knowing where one’s life is headed. The other gamble comes after this revelation, when Tom and Summer return to an old hangout and find that they’ve swapped their perspectives on love and fate. Deschanel shines best here, since her character’s offscreen actions have matured her into a happier, more wistful person than before, and the framing, costume, lighting, script and performance rally around Summer’s newfound faith. The movie, however, loses its nerve over Tom’s corresponding loss of faith. Unlike with Summer, Tom’s apparent change in perspective doesn’t signal any growth on his part, except where the script can find a place for its politically correct platitudes. Just a few scenes prior, Gordon-Levitt already had to contend with a cringeworthy monologue against the evils of capitalism, and a hokey plot turn about embracing one’s dreams. But it gets worse from there, as the movie finally rewards him for his infatuation by providing him with a new love interest, and punishing us for our time by providing us with a horrific final twist. (Guess her name.)
(500) Days of Summer | 2009 | USA | Director: Marc Webb | Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber | Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend