Part of the reason I found (500) Days of Summer to be ninety-five minutes of uninterrupted bliss is that I feel like I could have written it. In fact, I did some years ago write a screenplay that is very similar to it in plot and style, so much so that if my script were ever produced people would think I was influenced by this film. In baseball terms, this movie was right in my wheelhouse.
While I enjoyed the dickens out of it, a smile plastered on my face throughout, I recognize that the film is a delicate high-wire act, with a script that teeters on the overly precious. But it always stays on the wire due mostly to the capable hands of its leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’ll say it right now: Gordon-Levitt is the best actor under thirty in Hollywood films today.
In (500) Days of Summer (those parentheses are annoying to type) he plays Tom Hansen, a greeting-card designer and alround decent guy. When a new girl, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) starts work at his office he’s instantly smitten, but insecurity keeps him at bay. Finally, after a drunken night of karaoke, they start dating, even though they have a fundamental disagreement about the nature or even existence of love: he thinks it’s essential part of a person’s happiness, and is tied up with destiny, while she thinks it’s all a fantasy. This difference in philosophy will ultimately take its toll.
The film is told in non-linear fashion, with each scene identified by one of the five-hundred days between Tom meeting Summer and his getting over her. This keeps the story from bogging down, and we get the pleasure of watching Gordon-Levitt veer from giddy puppy love to post-breakup despair. The direction by Mark Webb also keeps things interesting, as he utilizes all sorts of tricks to keep it varied, from effective use of split-screen at a party (one side shows Gordon-Levitt’s expectations, the other reality) or when Gordon-Levitt wanders into one of his character’s sketches.
But this film really belongs to the writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. It percolates with terrific lines and forays into Tom’s psyche. I especially liked when he, in full self-pitying mode, goes to an art cinema and sees himself in a French film (complete with mime and balloon) and then a Bergman film, that ends with a funny take on the chess on the beach scene from The Seventh Seal. There are all sorts of small details that make the film enjoyable, such as Tom taking counsel from his much younger sister.
That is not to say that there aren’t a few problems with the film. At times it does edge into gooey preciousness, such as when Tom and Summer play house in an Ikea. Tom’s best buddies are kind of stock characters, even if they do have a lot of funny lines, while Summer isn’t a completely rounded character. I get the feeling (especially from an opening title card) that she’s based on someone who broke the heart of one of the writers, so perhaps that’s why she seems alternately charming and cold. She’s supposed to be quirky (Ringo’s her favorite Beatle) but I found the characterization wanting. No fault of Deschanel, though, who is luminous.
But those are small potatoes in what is otherwise a pleasure. The film bears a huge debt to a couple of other films, most notably The Graduate, which is spoken (Tom’s over-romantic nature is chalked up to a misreading of the film as a child, and then when Summer sees it she breaks into sobs and breaks up with Tom shortly thereafter). There’s even a key moment set to a Simon and Garfunkel tune. The unspoken is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, another biography of a relationship that doesn’t work told in non-linear form. Instead of romanticizing New York, this film does the same for Los Angeles, as Tom loves its architecture. The film is set in L.A. but has only one scene which is set in a car, and Tom is even able to walk to work. I wouldn’t have thought that possible.