For a movie that wears its influences firmly on its sleeve, I think it appropriate to begin my 500 Days of Summer review with a bold comparison: this movie is our generation’s Annie Hall. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Marc Webb’s directorial debut will upset a crowd-pleasing space opera for Best Picture, nor do I think the titular character’s fashion will influence thousands of style-starved women*. Yet here is a modern movie about a relationship that crumbles. The male lead is neurotic, the female lead is perplexing. The jokes veer from the heartfelt to the surreal to the pretentious. Both movies use style flourishes to illustrate contradicting gender perspectives, and even feature brief animated sequences. 500 Days of Summer may not become a classic, but like Annie Hall, it will please audiences with its humor and insight, and even inspire some bitter debate.
Two choices make Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay somewhat striking. Firstly, they do not tell the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in chronological order. We learn from the get-go that Tom is dumbstruck when Summer dumps him, and title cards note which day of the 500 we’re watching. This choice gives the story depth. Rather than follow Tom chronologically, there is a better sense of his emotional trajectory. When Tom wistfully says something Summer ignores, it soon becomes clear he’s alluding to a private joke, so Summer’s coldness takes on another dimension.
The second important choice is how the story is told entirely from Tom’s perspective. After a brief introduction from a stately narrator, there is little mention of Summer’s private life, or what she’s thinking. I’m sure Tom will remind everyone of someone they know – the honest audience goers will see a little of themselves in the character. He is a would-be architect, now working as a greeting card artist. Unlike Summer who is skeptical of romance, Tom is a true believer in love. This disagreement is at the core of their break-up, and renders Tom a pathetic (but lovable) mess.
Trust me when I say the movie is not a mopey cryfest. Webb and his writers imbue 500 Days of Summer with considerable humor. Tom is lovelorn, yes, but he can also be funny, particularly in the throes of romantic excess. There are familiar romantic comedy archetypes – we have the nerdy best friend (Geoffrey Arend), and the unrealistically precocious little sister (Chloe Moretz). The supporting cast (mostly) avoids cliché, and provides chuckles as well as a sound board for Tom. Fantastical moments, however, are where the movie excels. Not only are they funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, they also deftly exaggerate Tom’s emotion. After the first night with a new partner, many people have probably felt they could burst into song – here Webb lets us into Tom’s mind, and we experience his choreographed fantasy. Later, while reeling from the break-up, Tom envisions himself as a Bergman hero in the depths of a Serious Spiritual Crisis. Such daring choices could have derailed the movie, yet the careful performances prevent things from becoming too twee. Gordon Levitt has real chops, and knows that restraint is more powerful than exaggeration.
Perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve barely mentioned Deschanel’s character. It’s no accident – she remains a mystery, and we only see her superficially pleasant qualities. While Summer is consistently forthright, it’s a credit to Deschanel’s performance that we understand why she ends her relationship. The brief glimpses into her private life are unhelpful. Her apartment leaves more questions than answers, and the Belle and Sebastian** lyrics in her yearbook entry are also mysterious. I don’t mean this as a criticism; in fact, the choice is brilliant. Since we know more about Summer than Tom does, it is easy to get frustrated with his foolish idealized projection. At the end of the 500 days, Tom learns something about himself, and perhaps so have the viewers. I know I’ve had Tom moments. Here is a clever, warm-hearted comedy reminding us that romantic thoughts can be fraught with peril, and the one often shows up only when we’re ready.
* I think a few audience members will want to dress like the two leads. I definitely found myself considering whether to purchase more ties and sweater vests.
** Like Juno and High Fidelity, there are numerous pop culture references. The screenwriters wisely keep them more than a generation old. Anything more recent and they run the risk of sounding stale. A perfect example is when Tom sings karaoke version of a Pixies song. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it’s refreshing to see a movie in which young people spend considerable time at the bar.