The main characters are greeting card designer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his company's new administrative assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom has grown up with a romantic ideal - that he will find his One True Love. Summer, on the other hand, doesn't believe in love. Or, at least, not that kind of love. She goes with whoever appeals to her, living happily in the moment and never anticipating that she will feel the earth move. In many ways, it is this very quality that draws Tom to Summer; her openness with him gives the impression that perhaps he's changing her mind.
The movie opens with the day they break up, flashes back to the day they met, then bounces back and forth between good times and bad times. A happy scene from early in their relationship will be immediately followed by a congruous moment from the later, unhappier period, and vice versa. The effect creates a fabric that allows us to understand their union much more fully than a straightforward narrative would. Those 500 days are the amount of time between when Tom meets Summer and when he gets over her.
Director Marc Webb (working from a smart script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) finds visually innovative ways to tell the story. For instance, in one scene, Tom is attempting to win back the heart of Summer after their romance has gone sour. He shows up at a party she's throwing with a present and a belief that he can rekindle things. The screen splits in half. On the left side, labeled "Expectations," we see the scene play out the way he imagines it will. The right side, labeled "Reality," shows what really happens. Some may find this kind of stylistic device off-putting, arguing that (500) Days of Summer is doing nothing but calling attention to itself. I disagree, simply because it worked for me. I got into the film more because it was finding inventive ways of putting the characters' emotions under a microscope.
Here's another great example: After a scene in which Tom and Summer first make love, Tom walks down the street and imagines himself in a musical production number set to the tune of Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams." Haven't we all felt that way about someone at some point?
I loved (500) Days of Summer for many reasons, but for this one the most: I felt more during this movie than I have in any other romantic comedy in years. Tom and Summer feel like real people, experiencing real joys and real complications in their relationship. As we watch, their union seems to evolve, to grow, to retract, and to wither in authentic ways. If you've ever been in a relationship, you'll find something here that will hit home, good or bad. We also cannot predict the ups and downs between them. Even though we're warned up front that "this is not a love story," we don't know exactly how things will end up between them.
Contrast this with the summer's two big budget rom-coms, The Proposal and The Ugly Truth. Both are essentially the same film. Uptight, anal-retentive bitch meets down-to-earth, fun-loving guy and bickers violently with him before ultimately having her heart melted by his charms. Moral of the story: a woman needs a man to keep her from perpetually being an uptight, anal-retentive bitch. (This same formula was also used in last winter's dreadful New in Town and about a thousand previous romantic comedies.) I defy anyone who saw The Proposal or The Ugly Truth to tell me there was one single surprising element in either picture. You know every beat those movies are going to hit before you even walk in the door. And none of it feels genuine; the characters fall in love because a screenplay contrives for them to.
(500) Days of Summer is far more substantive, and therefore more sincerely romantic. It has its finger on something meaningful: In some relationships, one person is a little more in love than the other. One of the parties can be experiencing a profound sense of love - the kind that makes them want to stay in the relationship forever. The other one, meanwhile, may be enjoying the ride but knows a time will come when they might want to get off. The reason for Tom and Summer's break-up is intentionally vague. That's because the story is told from Tom's point of view. He remembers the good times, he remembers the bad times, yet he is unable to figure out exactly where it all went wrong. What he's left with is the knowledge that the time spent with Summer impacted him in deep, profound ways that will continue with him forever.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are both superb in their roles, and in its mixture of emotion and quirk, the movie has a nice Garden State-y feel to it. (A high compliment - Garden State is one of my favorite pictures of the last decade.) Funny, truthful, and touching, (500) Days of Summer is a film that avoids cheap plot machinations and instead offers real insight into what it means to find love. In terms of story, the movie is bittersweet, but as a moviegoing experience, it's pure ecstasy.
( out of four)
(500) Days of Summer is rated PG-13 for language and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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