(500) Days of Summer
2009, PG-13, 95 min. Directed by Marc Webb. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler, Chloe Moretz, Clark Gregg.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 24, 2009
“You should know up front: This is not a love story,” (500) Days of Summer’s omniscient narrator warns us. In storybook fashion, the film then lays out the rabbit-hole, pop-cultural obsessions and core-rocking events that define the He and She of this un-love story, Tom (Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Deschanel): When he was young, Tom tucked into the Smiths and watched The Graduate on constant loop, while Summer, marked by her parents’ divorce, cut off her prized long locks and realized – with numbness? liberation? resolve? – that the shear didn’t sting like she thought it would. It may sound reductive – character established in easy bullet points – but it’s also an instructive and artful manual on the warp and woof of their individual romantic philosophies. Opposing philosophies, it turns out: 500 is after all a finite number, and it marks the sum total days of Tom and Summer’s coupling, of which we are witness to a smattering, told in a teasing, fractured timeline. If the title and the narrator’s pronouncement don’t tender enough advance notice, Summer says as much on her first quasi-date with Tom, when she scoffs skeptically at love, or at least the moony, struck-dumb kind that the sentimentalist Tom clings to. He’s a failed architect tapping out greeting-card copy; she’s the boss’ new assistant, smirking at Tom’s sappy turns at bar mitzvah Hallmarks. After eyeing each other across the office, they meet cute in the elevator, as Tom blasts the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” on his headphones. When Summer sings along – “if a double decker bus/crashes into us/to die by your side/is such a heavenly way to die” – his head nearly spins on its axis. True love has surely found foundation on less – I sheepishly admit that that very song did the same number on me and a Smiths-lovin’ boy many moons ago – and soon enough, Tom and Summer are off to the races, thumbing through record shops together and playing house at IKEA. (All the hipsters in the house say … oh, forget it.) If I sound flippant, it’s only because I’m suspicious of my own weaknesses here, resistance to unabashed sentiment being par for the course for my generation (see also: ironic mustaches). (500) Days is a superior entry in the emerging canon of romantic comedy, or comedic romance, that also numbers All the Real Girls (divine), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (doubly so), and Garden State (less so, but undeservedly reviled). These are love stories that play with time and form and shoegazing in a still-new stew of jadedness and wild romanticism, too savvy and so dopey, butting heads, clammily holding hands, and swooning over overlapping iTunes libraries. (500) Days hits a sweet spot, then, but not without its sour notes. The clever timeline cutups distract from some frustratingly conventional add-ons from screenwriting team Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, as in the film’s clunky entrée and exit and the scripted-in-its-sleep character of Tom’s snappy preteen sister (“Don’t be such a pussy,” she instructs Tom, before jogging back to juniors soccer). But more troubling is the depiction of Summer. Deschanel does a lot with a character that is painted as either mystical or cruel, according to wherever the two are in their breakup/makeup hamster-wheel spin. Given the fetishistic scrutiny she’s subjected to, Deschanel plays her part beautifully (granted, she has magic-hour lighting and first-time director Webb’s music-video-informed composition on her side). But the real unkindness here is in the film’s dismissal of Summer; any questions over bias are blasted in the film’s “dedication” to the girl that inspired the piece, that “bitch.” Then again, we were told up front: This is not a love story. More to the point, this is a story about a boy who fell in love with a girl and eventually fell to earth. That said boy is played by the sweetly sincere and perfectly cast Gordon-Levitt helps to wash down the unevenness in sympathies, without diminishing the frustration that this new canon is almost entirely dominated by the male perspective. (Whither we women, huh? Isn’t rom-com our bread and butter?) Still, (500) Days is a funny, seductive, and surprisingly honest dramatization of the ways we snooker ourselves into incompatible love. It may be a one-sided show, but it’s proof that – to crib once again from the Smiths – if pretty girls don’t exactly make graves, they certainly inspire brokenhearted boys to erect marvelous monuments to them.