You should know up front, this is not a love story.
This is a tale on how love can be amazing, confusing, unbalanced, and equally how love can fail at times. We never quite remember a failed romance in chronological order. We start towards the end — then hop around in-between times that were great, and moments leaving us in pain. (500) Days of Summer is this kind of movie. The film finds just the right scale of tone — and neither trivializes nor melodramatically overstates the delicate feelings of explored heartbreak.
The audience is introduced to Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — a would-be talented architect idling by in LA as a writer of greeting cards. With his crooked smile, ordinary physique, and uncertain deep voice, Levitt camouflages his magnetism with shyness. His thoughts on love may not run as deeply as Shakespeare, but he unapologetically believes in romance and soulmates.
When his boss’ new assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) strolls in, Tom instantly finds himself in love. Summer sees Tom with a level sort of gaze. She’s sweet, smart, and uses her melancholic, spacey effect to magnify the charm she pretends to disguise. From the beginning, Summer is cautiously honest with Tom. She doesn’t believe in marriage, and she doesn’t believe in love. Summer is her own person. To Tom’s dismay, he can’t have her. Haven’t you known someone like that?
In romance, most believe in what they want to believe. Their characters seem so ideally matched as a cozy little hipster couple, that it seems like a bit of a shock when things don’t work out between them. Summer begins to like Tom, and proceeds to make a move one day over the Xerox machine. But can Tom accept that she merely likes him for now and not forever?
The film, directed by the incredible Marc Webb, is a delightful comedy about Tom wrestling with the reality that he may never fully have Summer. Webb uses templates from other movies to help him tell this story with playfulness instead of desperation. There’s a musical number accompanied to Hall & Oats’ “You Make my Dreams” when Tom spends his first night with Summer. It’s a black and white scene, with a touch of famed filmmaker Federico Fellini to top it all off. Mr. Webb — along with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber — have scrambled the chronology of Tom and Summer’s relationship so that their first meeting and eventual break-up occur close together in film time.
It’s a shuffled, ingenious presentation of their romance’s sincerest beginnings along with doses of an ambiguous middle and tormented aftermath. It’s like a warm and fuzzy Memento of sorts. From the outset, the audience knows more or less what happened between the two lovers, so most of the curiosity is really invested in the question of how it all came to pass. Summer is skeptical of such notions — especially when it comes to the idea of true love and other touchstones of the greeting card mythology Tom seems to hold on to. She remains mysterious throughout the whole film — perhaps because we as the audience are expecting her to cave just like Tom. But this film is not playing by Hollywood rules; anything can happen. Summer has every right to not do anything we expect of her.
As Tom conducts an architectural tour of Los Angeles for her, we find both of them arguing for their aesthetic value — which is an occurrence rarely happening between characters in film. Both Deschanel and Levitt play it for real, with a hint of subtlety and feeling that goes beyond the call of an ordinary romantic comedy. Summer refuses to compromise or commit to any consistency with Tom. She does love his company, which in turn makes Tom believe her intimacy barriers towards him are beginning to fall.
After the breakup, while he still harbors the fantasy that he may win Summer back, the screen splits in two to show his expectation vs. reality when Tom decides to go to a party on her rooftop. In these scenes, the directors are thinking more visually than verbally, as Tom comes to the realization that Summer will never be his again. Levitt is brilliant as Tom, and brings just the right amount of emotions and sensitivity to the awkward character. You understand towards the end he is more in love with the idea of love itself than with an actual person.
Deschanel is incredibly elusive and plays Summer straightforward. She means what she says in the beginning — especially when it comes to not looking for a serious relationship. Summer fails to comprehend why she isn’t being understood within this premise. In essence, Deschanel’s character is not a difficult woman. Rather, she just hasn’t found what she’s looking for. (500) Days of Summer sort of hits you with a blast of pure romantic oxygen. It’s a different kind of love story — an honest one which takes a part of you with it.
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