Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer is one of those rare highly touted movies that’s sometimes even better than the touting would have you believe. It’s also the sort of film that endorses the idea of giving people more than one chance. Who would ever think that this witty, savvy, slyly perceptive movie was directed by a guy who made a 3 Doors Down music video (no, blessedly not “Citizen Soldier”) and was written by the fellows who penned The Pink Panther 2? (I actually sought out Webb’s music video “Duck and Run,” but the only trace I saw of Webb’s style in the video lay in (500) Days’ use of split screen—and it’s a much less interesting use than is evidenced in (500) Days.)
Is this stated non-romantic comedy—that very much is a romantic comedy—perfect? No. It has a bit too much indie hipness for that, but I can’t bring myself to hold that too much against a movie that’s this smart, this funny and this wonderfully human. It’s this last quality that sells (500) Days. It also helps that its quirks don’t feel forced and are spread evenly between the movie’s characters and its style. So many quirky comedies have quirky characters, but only a handful are solid enough filmmaking to even attempt quirky style. Here, we have a film that can offer both in a nice balance.
The film’s story is one we can all probably identify with on one level or another. The continually remarkable Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tom Hansen, a young man whom the narrator informs us has a worldview borne of “sad British pop music and a complete misreading of the movie The Graduate,” which tells us just about everything we need to know concerning his approach to life. The other half of the relationship is a woman played by Zooey Deschanel, Summer Finn, a much more pragmatic young woman who doesn’t believe in love or relationships and understands The Graduate far too well for her own good. They meet when she gets a job at the greeting-card company he works for, and as the movie’s tagline says, “Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t,” though it’s not quite as simple as that sounds.
The film is structured in a jigsaw fashion, dropping in here and there on various numbered days of the titular 500 in question. Much like the narration, this could have been a pointlessly showy device, but the structure allows us a better understanding of just what happens, and how and why, by countering key moments in the relationship with scenes that support or undermine what Tom wants to believe and what Summer actually feels or doesn’t.
Occasionally, we see the same scene—or parts of it—in a different way, so that what appeared to convey one thing was actually suggestive of another. Without getting into a lot of specifics that might spoil the film’s often surprising developments, there’s what appears to be a charming scene where Tom finds a copy of Ringo Starr’s Stop and Smell the Roses album in a record store, which he shows Summer, since Ringo is her favorite Beatle. When we see the scene a second time, it becomes clear that this is where the relationship is starting to wear thin for her. Much the same dynamic is at work in a partially repeated scene involving a screening of The Graduate—perhaps the key scene in the film.
The film is constantly inventive and alive to its own sense of romance and the delusions of romance. Webb makes terrific use of split screen to show contrapuntal action—and in one deft sequence shows what Tom envisions on the left side of the screen and what actually happens on the right. There’s also a very shrewd reversal of the standard rom-com format, which involves a penultimate gloomy reel. And there’s a simply fantastic sequence using Hall and Oates’ song “You Make My Dreams” (already used badly in at least two pretty awful movies), which may owe a lot to a scene from Kevin Lima’s Enchanted (2007), but manages to make itself feel fresh.
The ending might be a little too easy (though the last gag is kind of irresistible), and the supporting characters may be a little too of the amusingly quirky sort. But there’s a sense of reality to it all that makes the film seem more charming than contrived. There is true wit here and joy and some sadness—along with principal characters you can care about and believe in. That’s awfully refreshing in a genre that’s become increasingly debased of late. Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language.