BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 24, 2009
(500) Days of Summer is a story of boy meets girl, but it is not a love story. We know this because a basso profundo narrator (Richard McGonagle) tells us so in the opening moments of the film. The boy, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), ought to know this, too, because the girl, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), has informed him that she is not interested in having a boyfriend, that she wants to avoid anything “serious,” and that she considers love an illusion. But Tom does not believe Summer, and to a considerable degree neither do we. Is this because we’ve been conditioned by the romantic tropes of Hollywood? Because love is so much more pleasant to presume than its absence? Because Ms. Deschanel is so unfathomably adorable? Perhaps a bit of each.
Alas, the story begins as the relationship ends, on Day 290 of the titular 500. Over the saddest pancakes I can recall seeing captured on film, Tom and Summer bicker (Her: “All we do is argue”; Him: “That is bullshit”) before she offers a variation on the five cruelest words in the English language, “You’re still my best friend.”
From this sad hinge, the movie swivels forward and back, telling two stories in alternation: Tom’s diligent attempt to construct a love affair with Summer, and his forlorn efforts to disentangle himself from the debris of its collapse. We leap from Day 28 to Day 303 to Day 167 to Day 408, oscillating between early hope and ultimate despair, the sudden, unbidden revelation of love and the slow, crushing realization that it is not requited.
The former half of the story, in particular, is told with light-fingered grace: It’s been some time since I’ve seen a film that captures with such immediacy the elation and anxiety of new love, the tingle and the terror, the profound sense that you have never been more alive and the occasional wish that you could die on the spot. And if the post-breakup narrative suffers somewhat in comparison--the humor becomes too broad on occasion, and Deschanel is in scarcer evidence--it doesn’t truly stumble until the final scenes, which are a bit forced and unsatisfying.
The otherwise sharp script is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose only previous produced screenplay was for the woeful Pink Panther 2--suggesting either that the writing duo suffers from some form of bipolar disorder, or that getting one’s foot in the door in contemporary Hollywood requires abasements more degrading than any casting couch. In this instance, Neustadter and Weber borrow widely but shrewdly. A clever, early reference to The Graduate acquires more weight later in the proceedings. A musical celebration of consummated bliss draws heavily on Amy Adams’s song-and-dance promenade through Central Park in Enchanted. An understated architectural tour of Los Angeles recalls Sam Waterston’s Big Apple presentation in Hannah and Her Sisters. There are nods to Bergman and Fellini on the one hand, Swayze and Hasselhoff on the other.
But the cultural artifact upon which Neustadter and Weber lean upon most heavily is Annie Hall. Unlike When Harry Met Sally, which self-consciously aped the style and humor of that film, (500) Days of Summer instead pilfers from its grab-bag of cinematic stunts: a fourth-wall demolition here, a split-screen effect there. Most of all though, the movie borrows Annie Hall’s wistful frame, a glimpse of early love refracted through the lens of its ultimate failure. No, (500) Days of Summer is no Annie Hall. But it does not embarrass itself in begging the comparison.
The varied elements are kept moving comfortably by first-time feature director Mark Webb, who comes to us from music videos and puts his experience to good use. The soundtrack, which draws from sources as varied as the Smiths, Hall & Oates, and the current First Lady of France, has the eclectic ingenuity that indie film often promises but seldom delivers, and Webb integrates his musical set pieces with uncommon finesse.
Like so many indie romances--High Fidelity is another obvious antecedent--the movie is unbalanced by design. We see the central relationship through Tom’s eyes exclusively, with Summer ultimately remaining as unknowable to us as she is to him. But then, it advertises as much right there in the title: He’s the one who’s limited to 500 days of Summer; she’ll be keeping her own company for a lifetime.
The leads fulfill the demands of their respective roles--his certainty, her reticence--with genuine charm and tenderness. Gordon-Levitt, who’s delivered some fine but emotionally remote performances in the past (in Brick, for instance), opens up considerably as Tom. Though he squints through gunfighter eyes, as if unable to bear the full luminosity of the object of his longing, he can’t help but wear his heart on his sleeve, and shirt collar, and trouser legs.
And Deschanel? Suffice to say that in an alternate reality in which I ran Hollywood, it is her star rather than Kate Hudson’s that would have ascended following Almost Famous, in which she appeared, too briefly, as William Miller’s flight-attending older sister. What followed instead has been, with few exceptions (All the Real Girls clearest among them), a decade of barely differentiated good-girl supporting roles (Elf, The Happening, Yes Man). By contrast, (500) Days of Summer takes full advantage of Deschanel’s offbeat radiance, the way her giant, Bahama-blue eyes flicker between focused and unfocused, knowing and innocent. Tom’s poor heart never stood a chance.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.