The first time I saw “500 Days of Summer” was in January, at the Sundance Film Festival. I loved it for its creativity and vibrant humor, for the clever way it rearranged familiar movie tropes to come up with something new. Five months passed before I saw it again, at the CineVegas Film Festival, and in the interim I had experienced my own miniature version of the film’s central relationship. That didn’t occur to me, though, until the movie started and I began recognizing myself as one of its characters. Now, in addition to being hilarious and original, the film was suddenly emotionally resonant, honest about love and romance in a way that few films are. This film that I already adored took on even more significance and value. How often does that happen? My second viewing of “Resident Evil,” for example, did nothing for me.
The unseen narrator cautions us up front that while this is indeed a story of boy meets girl, it is not a love story. It is, however, a story about love — its painful truths, its exhilarating highs, and the inconvenient fact that while she may be The One for you, you might not be The One for her. The kicker is that we keep looking anyway, because when The Ones do line up, well, boy howdy.
Our hopeless romantic is Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young Los Angeles man with a degree in architecture that is currently gathering dust while he writes copy for a greeting-card company. A co-worker named Summer (Zooey Deschanel) has been in his life for 500 days, and the movie hopscotches through time to show us all the ups and downs, each scene preceded by a handy title card informing us what number day it is.
Summer, we are informed by our narrator, is the type of woman with whom men have always fallen in love. (Zooey Deschanel has played this role about a dozen times now, which by itself makes her casting perfect.) Summer is pretty in a girl-next-door sort of way, easygoing and approachable, smart but not intimidating. She also does not believe in true love. She does not believe in The One. This is unfortunate for Tom, who not only believes in The One but believes he will not be happy until he finds her. What’s more, he thinks Summer might be it.
If we mentally put their relationship in chronological order, we see that it begins happily and passionately, with trips to Ikea to play house, the revealing of secrets never shared with anyone else, lazy Sundays in bed, all the usual accoutrements — peppered, in this case, by snappy but believable dialogue written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. (The duo also wrote “Pink Panther 2,” but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess their heart wasn’t in that the way it was in this.) Summer insists right off that she’s not looking for anything serious, but honestly, isn’t that what we all say until we meet the person we want to be serious with?
There is strain in the relationship later (though we saw it sooner, because it was shown to us out of sequence). The strain comes because Tom is more in love with Summer than Summer is with Tom. At a cafe, they have this conversation:
TOM: I’m happy, aren’t you happy?
SUMMER: You’re happy?? All we do is argue!
TOM: That is complete bulls***.
What happens from there is a foregone conclusion, really, though it’s startling to see it played out so realistically and empathetically. All movies are made by human beings (“Transformers” excepted), yet it’s rare to see one that truly represents the way human beings think and feel. “500 Days of Summer” does it. Directed by Marc Webb (his first feature), it’s as close to perfect a romantic comedy as I’ve ever seen. It’s actually romantic, for one thing — sweet and starry-eyed yet grounded in reality, the way love actually is. Even when the film is not literally realistic — the impromptu celebratory dance number, for example, or the side-by-side comparison of Tom’s expectation of a scene versus the reality of it — the emotions being depicted hit home.
Despite being miraculously witty and inventive, the film is never self-consciously quirky. Apart from the title, there’s nothing cutesy to be found. It’s a tight, well-structured screenplay, too, the kind of work you can tell wasn’t cobbled together by some studio committee but was honest-to-goodness WRITTEN, with a purpose in mind, by people who cared about how it turned out. (I award the movie extra points for having the best closing line of dialogue of any movie in years.)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who got his start on the sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun” but has mostly done serious work since then, has the exuberance and vulnerability to make a character like Tom relatable without turning him into a wimpy sad sack. Where other sensitive movie men would be brooding or moping, Tom is using his black mood to write inappropriate greeting cards and to bark at passersby who dare hold hands in his presence.
Perhaps you are wondering if this is really a film about a failed relationship, and if so, how it can possibly be as upbeat and wonderful as I say it is. Your concerns are logical — but love is not logical, and “500 Days of Summer” is all about love. You’ll have to trust me. Trust me that you’ll fall in love with Tom and/or Summer, that you’ll leave the film happier than you went in, and that sure enough, a movie can address the cold, hard facts of love and make you glad to have learned them.
A (1 hr., 35 min.; )