This is a story of boy meets girl, a stern, wry narrator informs us before the credits of Marc Webb’s self-styled “anti-romantic comedy”, (500) Days of Summer. The narrator goes on to warn us (not in so may words) that if we’re expecting a love story, we’ll be sobbing as hard as Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) after he gets dumped by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). This film doesn’t bury the lead; after a brief sequence on day 1 (when the two first meet), we jump forward to more than a year later (somewhere in the 380s), as Summer declares her love for pancakes and the relationship’s imminent demise. It makes sense in the scene.
This film revels in quirk and hipster sensibility almost as much as Juno (albeit less annoyingly so), and spins its relationship tale with as disjointed a timeline as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 500 Days makes a suitable companion piece to the latter film; both come from music video directors bringing some of their usual stylistic flourishes, and both use unconventional storytelling and a nonlinear timeline to offer their perspectives on love via exploration of a failed relationship.
But that’s where the similarities end… For a film in which the male romantic lead spends the majority of the time brooding and sobbing, 500 Days is remarkably uplifting and funny. The film takes place largely from Tom’s perspective, and at times, inside his head. It is a film about expectations. Summer, whose parents split up when she was a child, doesn’t expect anything from a relationship, and doesn’t really even want one. Tom, having internalized the lessons of a childhood of romantic songs and movies (and a total misread of the ending of The Graduate), doesn’t think he’ll be truly happy until he finds “the one”. Unfortunately, he only has the vaguest idea of what “the one” will be.
In the opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) ponders why he falls in love with any woman who shows him the slightest bit of attention (in that case, the enigmatic Clementine, played by Kate Winslet). Tom is a character that could easily end up in the same boat as Joel, even after the emotional smackdown that he experiences in 500 Days. While neither Kate Winslet nor Zooey Deschanel are true examples of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in their respective films, their men seem bent on regarding them as such. They are each warned to manage their expectations as they begin the relationship, and they each pay a steep emotional price for failing to do so.
The performances are quite adept. Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again proves his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “3rd Rock from the Sun”.
But even as Gordon-Levitt continues to prove as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding, it is Zooey Deschanel that steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.
As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective.
It is a lot easier to hate Chloe Moretz, a 12-year-old actress who may inadvertantly end up typecasting herself. In Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel “Kick-Ass”, Moretz will play Hit Girl, a precocious, sword-wielding assassin. Here, she plays an equally unrealistic youngster in the form of Tom’s sister Rachel, who spends the entire film feeding him uncannily adept relationship advice in-between soccer matches. Despite Moretz’s solid performance, this character is the film’s biggest misfire. She could easily have been written out of the film without losing anything but doddering exposition. Perhaps I could have tolerated either an unrealistically savvy child or prolific movie trailer narration, but the inclusion of both nearly causes the film to collapse under the weight of its own cleverness.
And indeed, all of the characters occasionally feel overwritten. Summer intones with uncanny frequency how much she “loves” a particular band or food or [anything but Tom], and Tom’s job as a greeting card writer often seems like merely a clever setpiece for unrealistic emotional dialogue (consult your local Hallmark dealer for further examples). But somehow, the result is immensely enjoyable. This film is equal parts fable and reality, but it has a lot of insight to offer about love and relationships. (500) Days of Summer has earned its place alongside Eternal Sunshine and Forgetting Sarah Marshall in the “broken hearts” section of my pantheon of cinematic romances.
If you see this film, it will almost certainly speak to you on some level. If you don’t see yourself in one of these characters, then you might just see someone you know.