500 Days of Summer was written in the midst of a breakup, and it shows. For all the warm, generous, very funny things that it is, the movie is also a cry of pain from a guy who just can't figure out why the girl of his dreams dumped him. That it is a guy's romantic comedy is unique and part of its charms, but it also makes 500 Days of Summer puzzling, an entry into the romance genre that makes the female the blank, prepossessed, infuriating one.
Lucky for everyone involved, Zooey Deschanel is playing this particular female, Summer, a new assistant at the greeting card company that employs Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and clearly the prettiest girl for miles. Summer's main personality traits seem to be liking the Smiths and having a knack for decorating her apartment, but Tom falls hard for her anyway, keeping up a yearlong relationship while ignoring all her hints that she's not in for anything serious. When they split Tom is devastated, and spends the rest of the movie both hoping to win her back and sifting through his memories of times good and bad..
The cleverest thing about 500 Days of Summer-- and in some ways, the least important-- is its shuffled chronology, starting the film on the 490th day they've known each other and shifting back and forth through the relationship, jumping from breakup scene to happy shopping at IKEA, from a nasty fight late in the relationship to drunken karaoke before their first kiss. And if this jumbled, highly subjective timeline isn't enough to keep us in Tom's frazzled brain, we're also privy to his conversations with buddies (Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler) and his little sister (Chloe Moretz), all of whom wish he'd just buck up and get over it already. The crazy chronology really works, believe it or not, thanks to some well-timed title cards and the basic emotional honesty that holds the whole thing together. What screenwriters Scott Neustadt and Michael Weber brilliantly realize is that, even in the pain of breakup, all those earlier happy memories exist. It's impossible to just get over someone when you so clearly remember how they used to look at you.
Gordon-Levitt is tremendous as Tom, a guy with big dreams about jobs and romance who can't seem to get started with either. Thanks to the flights of fancy taken by the wildly inventive script, Gordon-Levitt must speak French, speak directly to the camera, sing terrible karaoke, and lead a dance number in the streets of Los Angeles. He does it all marvelously. Deschanel, welcome as ever, is a bit worse off, filling in a role that is, by design, a bit blank. But she too fits perfectly into director Marc Webb's vision, and Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are such a good pair you'll ache for a sequel. Webb, who cut his teeth making music videos but is handling features for the first time, is almost absurdly confident, navigating the shuffled deck of the narrative and all kinds of ballsy moves with the courage of a veteran. He walks the movie out on to a tightrope and, when you're not looking, lets it fly.
That's how you'll feel watching the film-- airbone, transcended, as scenes slide in and out, musical montages lift your heart, and the frequent witty jokes and well-timed edits earn some of the most genuine laughs of the summer. It's only after that the problems set in, that Summer's lack of personality might be more than just the filmmakers' attempts to put us in Tom's head, or that one too many songs stood in for actual conversations between the main characters. In making Tom and Summer's relationship feel relatable, inviting us to place our own memories on top of theirs, Neustadter and Weber occasionally slip into making them generic entirely.
But really, those are cranky film critic things to say to a film that's otherwise so exciting, so inviting of a re-watch, so promising of new talent. For a movie that's about deconstructing the myth of the dream girl, maybe it's best to just accept 500 Days with all its flaws.