(500) Days of Summer
by George Sax
Given the much-remarked on uncertain condition of the motion picture romantic comedy, Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer would seem to be a natural result. It’s what would probably be called “offbeat” by industry flacks, and by all the movie journalists who often sound like them.
“This is a story of boy meets girl,” a resonant-voiced narrator tells us right off the bat, sounding like Edward R. Murrow in an early 1950s TV documentary. But, he advises, “This is not a love story.” Well, yeah, but it really is, in its own way. It’s the story of one young guy’s hopeless love for the romantically idealized girl of his dreams.
The movie postures as an anti-romantic comedy, a vehicle for today’s supposedly more sensible and skeptical young moderns. Maybe, and maybe not. (500) Days isn’t quite as wryly cynical and practical-minded as it makes out. And judging by the composition and reaction of a preview audience last week, it may become one of this year’s date-night entertainment destinations, in spite of, not because of, its stance.
Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the romantic dreamer. He’s introduced as the butt of the movie’s ironic scoffing. Tom, our narrator tells us, believes that somewhere out there is the one girl for him. This illusion is attributed to his susceptibility to “sad British pop music” and a misreading of Mike Nichols’ movie, The Graduate.
It doesn’t take much more than an across-the-room assessment of Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the new assistant to the head of the LA greeting card firm where Tom, an architectural dropout, is employed as a writer, to get things moving. An encounter in an elevator where Summer approvingly notes that Tom is playing the Smiths on his iPod, and he’s hooked, his fate sealed. Hers, not so much: Summer, a post-1960s-kooky independent spirit, resists the girlfriend tag. Early on, she tells Tom and a couple of his buds that true love is a fantasy.
She’s never really his, and the largest part of this nimble, pointed movie goes over the course of their doomed affair in a time-jumbling fashion, shuttling back and forth from one out-of-sequence incident to another. Theirs is a story of dissonant expectations and sensibilities, their joint attraction to Morrissey notwithstanding.
Debuting director Webb manages to sustain (500) Days’ engaging and amusing tone for a considerable portion of his movie, employing a battery of stylishly distancing devices, including our documentary-style voice-over guide; split-screen dual interpretations of the same scene; and a wacky Jacques Demy-like musical number in an LA streetscape. (500) Days has style to spare, and eventually it becomes a little tedious and begins to conflict with an emerging current of real feeling. Tom may be a fool for love, but he’s a sympathetic figure in the plight he helped construct for himself.
The movie succeeds as well as it does because of its lead performers. Deschanel and Gordan-Levitt are chemically interactive and persuasive as the mutually attracted but mismatched pair. She has to contend with the particular limitations of her role: Summer remains something of a cipher, for us as well as for Tom. There’s a bit of the eternal, unknowable female of time-honored male complaint as her part is written. (The script is by Scott Neustradter and Michael H. Weber.) The movie is about Tom’s mystification and frustration. This isn’t so much a droll deconstruction of a blighted romance as a depiction of his experience of it. Even in a late, more serious scene intended to grant him some measure of closure, Summer is still charmingly elusive and a little willful. It’s the male gaze that frames events in this movie.
So, much of the burden of making all this work falls on Gordon-Levitt’s slight frame, and he manages surprisingly well. Since his days as the juvenile on the 1990s sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, and especially since his breakthrough performance as the haunted gay hustler in Gregg Araki’s moving Mysterious Skin in 2003, he’s developed into an economically effective, subtly convincing screen actor. As much as anything else in the movie, it’s Gordon-Levitt’s performance that moves us to empathize with Tom’s comically foolish and painful sentimental education.
Watch the trailer for (500) Days of Summer
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