If you’re lucky enough to have ever been in love, the odds are you’ve also had your heart broken at least once. It’s a package deal by way of a Faustian travel agency, a journey filled with utter beauty, wonder, and awe, with illicit trysts on the beach at midnight, sunshine-filled walks through the town where The Truman Show was filmed, moments and hours made up of laughter and conversation and perfect silence, entire days spent naked and together… a journey that ends abruptly with your battered and beaten corpse washed up on the bloodied shore of rejection. Or not. Your mileage may vary. Now let’s go ahead and review this beautiful goddamn movie, (500) Days of Summer.
Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for a greeting-card company where he wiles away the days writing heartfelt sentiments in twenty words or less for all of life’s ups and downs. His dream is to become an architect, meaning his career as a copywriter isn’t the one he truly wants, just the one he’s settled for. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) arrives one day as his boss’s new assistant, and Tom is instantly and irreversibly smitten. Trouble is not only does she not feel the same but she doesn’t even believe that love exists. Tom wins her over eventually but has to settle for a casual relationship without definition and without the mention of love. Life is beautiful for a while, but like a delicious pizza or the tingly feeling I get in my giblets when I ride the Pirate Ship at an amusement park the good times are fleeting and not destined to last.
And no, I didn’t just give away the film’s ending. (It’s a finite number of days in the title people…). The movie doesn’t play out chronologically, but instead jumps back and forth through time across the five hundred days of Tom’s life with Summer. (Imagine Memento as a romantic comedy but without murder and memory loss). Scenes of joyful coupling exist right beside the couple’s break-up in a diner. We see their first eye contact and first kiss next to arguments and growing disinterest. The days that make up their story may not play in order, but they succeed brilliantly in painting a complete portrait of young love and heartache.
The disjointed structure isn’t the only thing different and fresh about (500) Days of Summer. Director Marc Webb makes his feature debut pop with an incredible visual style including images that shade into drawings, Tom finding himself in the chess scene from The Seventh Seal, a split screen showing the division between hopeful expectation and brutal reality, and probably the best dance number outside of a musical since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And for those of you who hate the “spontaneous sing/dance along” too prevalent in today’s romantic comedies you need not worry here. This one is not only imagined but also a perfect metaphor for Tom’s first morning after a night spent with the woman he loves. Webb and cinematographer Eric Steelberg present a beautiful and idealized Los Angeles that some may find hokey and unbelievable, but that fits a movie told from Tom’s perspective. His pinhole focus has little room for excess distractions outside of Summer. And can you blame the guy?
Your ears will be just as in love with the film as your eyes are thanks to one of the better soundtracks of recent years. The Smiths, The Temper Trap, Doves, Simon & Garfunkel, and Deschanel’s own side project, She & Him, all help create the soundtrack to the couple’s relationship. They first speak when she compliments the music emanating from beneath his headphones and then proceeds to sing along “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die…” Most of us have more than a few songs capable of instantly transporting us back to a person, a day, a caress. This movie understands that songs can be timestamps throughout our lives and shares some fantastic music to add to our mental collections.
Visual shenanigans and an awesome soundtrack will only get a film so far without solid writing and acting to back them up. Happily, (500) Days of Summer succeeds here as well. The script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber is a pleasant surprise in so many ways but most notably because their only other produced work is Steve Martin’s The Pink Panther 2. Potential script gimmicks aside, the dialog is sharp, funny, and honest, and the characters rise above the level of generic staple. The only weak link is a minor one in the form of Tom’s younger sister who’s wise beyond her years. Chloe Moretz does fine with the role and her scenes are mildly amusing, but the character-type is overdone.
The core strength of the film though belongs to the two leads. I’ve spoken before about wanting to skinny-dip in Deschanel’s eyes, and Webb probably feels the same way. His camera finds her eyes often, sometimes letting them fill the screen like two inviting springs beckoning my naked flesh in on a hot summer day… On a less creepy note, Deschanel also manages to capture what could have been a thankless and unsuccessful role in the wrong hands. The movie is Tom’s viewpoint so we never get to see her inner workings and motivations. That can be aggravating when she behaves seemingly irrationally or unemotionally and spurns my Tom’s love… we can’t understand it, just as we don’t always understand the action and inaction of the ones we love in our own lives. It’s tempting to hate her for Tom’s sake, but Deschanel makes it impossible. Her Summer isn’t a conniving or hurtful bitch, she’s just an honest individual being true to her own confusion and doubts. Men don’t have exclusive rights to the absence of emotion. Gordon-Levitt has received praise before but his performance here is a star-making turn. He’s funny, endearing, heart-breaking, and inspiring throughout. Some people (Carr!!!!) may find him too mopey, but it’s realistic and understandable for his character. And thanks to the movie’s jumbled narrative you only have to wait a few minutes and he’ll be smiling and happy again. Plus, how can you not love the guy when he looks at his reflection at the peak of his happiness and sees Han Solo smiling back?
An unseen narrator warns us early on that “This is not a love story. It is a story about love.” Something you should know about Mr. Narrator… he’s only half right. The film is very much a love story, and while it may or may not end the way we expect, it’s a more complete, believable, and relatable love story then any number of romantic comedies or dramas that litter the screens on a weekly basis. The movies usually tell us that true love is guaranteed with whomever we choose if only we want it enough… this movie reminds us how full of shit that idea really is. All the visual and narrative gimmicks can’t hide the fact that (500) Days of Summer is a ballsy movie for ignoring the conventions and expectations of the genre and instead treating the viewers as intelligent people familiar with love whether it be real, imagined, or misguided. We’ve all traveled the peaks and valleys of our own relationships, and we can identify with Tom (or maybe you identify with Summer… I’m looking at you Cindy Kawasaki!) Some of our loves have ended, some are still going strong, and some were never meant to be. If we’re lucky though, we might just get a memorable dance number or two along the way.