(500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy designed for viewers who don't usually like romantic comedies. Or, to rephrase, it's a movie for those who appreciate the emotional resonance of a rom-com but are unenthusiastic about the clichés and formulas associated with the genre. In fact, what sets (500) Days of Summer apart from its cookie-cutter rom-com brethren is its subtle mocking of convention. Much like Woody Allen's Annie Hall did for a previous generation, this is a film that best captures a contemporary romantic sensibility. For his feature film debut, former music video director Marc Webb has done so much right that it's hard and perhaps borderline mean-spirited to point out the few minor foibles.
The protagonist of the story is hopeless romantic Tom Hansen (Gordon-Levitt) who reflects on the several hundred days he knew Summer Finn (Deschanel). The moment Tom spots her in the workplace, he's instantly smitten. After a few encounters at work, the two become romantically involved. But there's one crucial obstacle in their relationship: radically opposing perceptions on love. Despite Summer's firm stance that she's not looking for anything serious, Tom harbours delusions that she's falling head-over-heels for him.
The story of Tom and Summer's relationship is not conveyed in a simple linear progression, but rather told out of order (with a counter that reveals which day it is). As the narrative whipsaws back and forth, the film allows us to see moments of happiness and sadness, tenderness and anger, togetherness and separation...all right next to each other. It shows how memories of the good and the bad intertwine and obscure each other, depending on the moment. The screenwriters brilliantly realise that, even in the pain of a break-up, all the happy, earlier memories of a person will forever exist. It's unbelievably difficult to just get over someone when you can still vividly recall how they used to look at you.
In a sense, (500) Days of Summer feels like an anthology of bits and pieces that don't often feature in rom-coms. Adamantly eschewing convention (no cute meetings or last-minute dashes to the airport), this is a movie concerned about the thrill of realising a girl you desire has similar taste in music, and the hollowness of going out on dates when you're still pining for your ex-girlfriend. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's screenplay is smart, witty, frequently hilarious, and rooted in recognisable truths that give weight to what would otherwise be merely amusing. Also, viewers aren't damned to endure gross-out gags or unfunny pratfalls, because the comedy (of which there is a lot) evolves organically. The script isn't ridiculously profanity-ridden either, though the sole use of the f-word perhaps provides the biggest laugh. Not everything works - an omniscient narrator seems lazy and overused, and Tom has a kid sister (Moretz) who's wise beyond her years - but even if something falls flat, there's plenty of charm to allow us to discount these misgivings.
Director Marc Webb brings the script to life with the utmost pizzazz; indulging in a full armada of visual tweaks and ocular gags. There are faux old movie recreations (most notably of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal) that place Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in the action, a clever split-screen sequence that balances Tom's hopeful fantasy with the less optimistic reality, and a wonderful song-and-dance number to convey the joyfulness of Tom's first night with Summer (set to You Make My Dreams Come True by Hall & Oates). This breezy song-and-dance sequence is especially critical to putting the movie in proper perspective - for the entirety of the film, viewers are not objective voyeurs...they're gazing through Tom's eyes.
(500) Days of Summer has quite a neo-Woody Allen vibe, calling to mind two classic romantic comedies courtesy of the writer-director: Annie Hall and Manhattan (though Joseph Gordon-Levitt is better looking than Woody and infinitely less neurotic). These aforementioned films recognised a simple fact that few rom-coms acknowledge: not all romances, no matter how promising, end happily. (500) Days of Summer also understands this, as well as the fact that every high of a relationship has a matching low.
The amount of movie-goers who develop crushes for Zooey Deschanel is borderline embarrassing, and this reviewer is as guilty as anyone else. But you can't help it; every time she appears in a movie, she's absolutely enchanting. (500) Days of Summer cleverly trades in on that - an early sequence (with wry narration) explains "the Summer Effect"; presenting hard data which reveals, for example, that she substantially increased profits at an ice cream parlour during her time of employment there, and the average percent of the asking price she usually pays for an apartment. Summer is always in danger of becoming a romanticised abstraction, but Zooey's wonderful performance and inherent beauty keeps the character profoundly human. Her charm is effective, and a viewer can easily understand why Tom would be so enamoured with her and want to hold onto her, even when she's clearly and defiantly pulling away from him.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (best known for his recurring role in the TV series 3rd Rock from the Sun) is note-perfect, and so effortlessly charismatic that it's hard not to like him. Thanks to the flights of fancy taken by the script, Gordon-Levitt must speak French, sing awful karaoke, and lead a song-and-dance number in the streets (among other things), all of which he accomplishes with marvellous aplomb. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are an outstanding screen couple with unusually brilliant chemistry. The entire cast is simply perfect from top to bottom.
Romantic comedies are too often robbed of integrity on account of the constraints of the traditional hackneyed formula. Movies such as (500) Days of Summer, with a willingness to deviate from convention, therefore seem more honest and excellent than usual. With its boundless charm and witty screenplay, this is an easy film to fall in love with.