(500) Days of Summer
shares some features of the recent spate of precocious, indie-rock romantic
comedies. It's got self-absorbed leads, a hand-crafted visual
style, and shoe-gazing bands on the soundtrack. But for all that,
the movie succeeds, because in the end, it's a rare romantic comedy
that cares about its characters and tries to make some sense of what
they are going through. To its eternal credit, (500) Days of
Summer forgoes predictability and the kind of ending we all expect
from this genre, opting instead for a more honest, realistic, and edifying
outcome. How often do romantic comedies come along that a) don't
end with the leads in each other's arms and b) treat both leads'
perspectives with equal care?
The story is non-linear; each
scene opens with a number in parentheses (as in the title), indicating
which day of the leads' relationship we are about to see. Tom
(Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for a Los Angeles greeting card company;
an aspiring architect, Tom is not satisfied with the detour his career
has taken. A new hire, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), catches Tom's
eye and he immediately falls for her. Althought Summer warns Tom
from the start that she's not looking for anything "serious,"
the two grow closer. Of course, Tom is far more invested in the
relationship, and he lies to Summer about being okay with her more aloof
attitude. Summer eventually pulls away from Tom, leaving him devastated.
Later, Tom meets Summer on the way to a mutual friend's wedding; they
re-connect there, and Tom believes that their relationship is on the
verge of a rebirth. Summer invites him to a party at her apartment,
and Tom goes full of anticipation - but meets disappointment all over
again. Tom is driven to focus on architecture - he studies and
compiles a portfolio and applies for jobs. In the middle of this,
Tom finds Summer at his favorite spot in the park. They talk and
Tom starts to understand what really passed between he and Summer.
Although the screenplay by
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber does incorporate romantic comedy
clichés - goofball friends, silly behavior in public places, the
heartbreak "crisis" scenes - they eventually wind up in the background
of the action, while the substance of the film maintains a close and
thoughtful focus on the two lead characters. Tom is likeable but
naïve, and we know he's in for a rough time from the outset.
Summer is a bit harder to pin down, yet her experience is as familiar
as Tom's; at first, she seems to be a little selfish, but as the film
progresses her position grows increasingly empathetic. The performances
help immensely. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are both excellent,
investing their characters with credible youthful confusion. Each
character grows and changes throughout the course of the narrative,
and those changes, while subtle, are evident in the performances.
The direction by Marc Webb
is inventive and dynamic, without being overly busy. A well-staged
musical number represents Tom's mood after spending his first night
with Summer. When Tom attends Summer's party near the end of
the film, one side of the frame shows how Tom imagines the party, and
the other shows how the party actually plays out. These touches
- and many others - show a level of visual engagement not typical
for the genre, and above average for any film.
What ultimately separates the
movie from the chaff of the romcom genre and what will make it last
is the difficult, crumbly development of Tom and Summer's relationship.
It's not meant to last, and it doesn't. The fact that a movie
intended as a charming comedy takes on such subject matter is noteworthy;
the fact that it's largely successful is surprising. Tom eventually
realizes that his romantic attitude is justified, despite his heartbreak;
and Summer knows it, too, even though she started out sour on the idea
of love. The fact that the two of them, in particular, weren't
meant for each other is ultimately liberating - an experience that
is as universal as it is rare in movie romances.