The Splintered Arc of a Love Affair
"Something as Permanent as a Greeting Card" ("Color My Life with the Chaos of Trouble")
Once in a blue moon a little movie comes along that takes you completely by surprise if you're walking in with low expectations and an objective demeanor. If (500) Days of Summer isn't the best movie of the summer season—now seemingly locked into alternating between "tent-pole" franchises and Film-Fest pick-ups, of which this is the latter—then it will do until something better comes along. And halfway through July that looks very unlikely.
The nice thing about (500) Days is that it's hard to classify—romance, comedy, drama, maybe "bromance," but not really—but what it is not is a "chick flick," as, here, the traditional roles in such a froth are reversed. Boy, Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a "perfectly adequate greeting card writer" meets Girl, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), assistant to his boss (director Clark Gregg—now more famous as Agent Coulson from the Marvel films and TV). Owing to what the narrator calls "The Summer Effect" that elicits "18.4 double-takes" on every bus-ride, Tom takes an immediate interest in her and begins a luring, enticing pursuit that to his shock and delight manages to hook the odd, off-putting Summer.
Then, the trouble begins, as it seemingly has before. Tom, you see, is a hopeless romantic—an oxymoron if ever there was one—while Summer doesn't believe in star-crossed romance, soul-mates, "Chasing Amy," or "hikes along the Appalachian Trail." She just wants to be happy, have fun and enjoy herself now, while she can.
This would be dreadful taken chronologically. But director Marc Webb and his scripters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber* (who start off with a great touch) shake up the story and spill it out on the screen in a complex timeline that flies back and forth between good times and bad, reflecting the bi-polar extremes of Tom (which veer between music-video exuberance and plate-smashing depression) and the shifting moods of Summer (who runs hot and cold). The juxtapositions are great grist for comedy and the laughs are smart and plentiful. Throughout, Tom is advised by his small posse (Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler) and little sister (Chloe Moretz), all surprising in ways one doesn't expect.
It's the two leads that are exceptional. Zooey Deschanel is a fringe-actress roller-skating the edge of fame and one would hope that this was the role that gooses her career choices. Deschanel has always been good at the atypical waif, but her Summer has a solid spine that makes her the leader in the dance. And Deschanel is just interesting to watch for her choices. During a party scene when asked, "What brought you here?" her brow furrows and her poached-egg eyes rattle through five fast and different expressions before she says anything, in sentences that are eerily elongated on certain words. And as the lovelorn Summer lover, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows a hither-to unseen range of ways to elicit comedy. If Tom is on a self-imposed short-leash, Gordon-Levitt is given a lot of rope to play with. It's a great, wise, funny performance that belies the actor's Keanu-like outer calm.
But it's the film-makers at play that finally wins you over—not just in the intricately shifting timeline that a second viewing will only confirm, but in one magical sequence that is so painfully honest and wonderfully cruel to romantic notions that you wonder why someone hasn't done it before. A sequence of Tom going to a party at Summer's split-screens to show his expectations of how the night should go alongside the brutal reality that sends him running into the night backed by an ironic pop-song (of which the film is full). It's a great idea carried off masterfully, as so much of this film is. But technique is one thing. What the film gets brutally right is the anticipation of love, the thrill of receiving it and the abject horror of losing it. And the film cracks wise about it at every step. As Tom says at one point (I believe it's Day 122), "Loneliness. It's underrated."
* Webb has gone on to direct the Andrew Garfield-Emma Stone "Amazing Spider-man" movies (where the interactions between the two leads were the best parts of the movie) and Neustadter and Weber subsequently have adapted two great films about young people, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars.