Whatever became of the rom-com? Back in the early- to mid-90s, it was simple. Boy meets girl. Girl isn't interested. Boy chases girl until he catches her. Done and done. Just two people trying to find a connection. But the new millennium version of this genre puts increasingly complicated roadblocks in the paths of the protagonists: He's a working gigolo or she's secretly a Playboy bunny or he's really dead. These setups create heavy-on-the-laughs, light-on-the-love situations that allow us to set our brains to dumb and forget how strange, wonderful and inherently amusing romance can be. (500) Days of Summer doesn't. Instead, it reminds us that love is a difficult enough journey without fantastic obstructions. Actually, as we're told in the opening moments, the film isn't even about finding love. It's about getting over it.
Despite derailing from his chosen career as an architect, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an optimist, with the kind of moon-eyed belief in destiny that allows him to write treacly greeting cards and really believe the sentiments inside. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the mysterious, quirky new secretary at his company. Tom loves Summer. Or at least he thinks he does. What he really loves is the concept of them as a couple (his most popular card simply read "I love us"), based on her beauty and love of the Smiths (she introduces herself by singing along to his headphones). Summer, on the other hand, doesn't believe in true love and would rather be friends, although she doesn't object to the occasional snog. The 16 months of their relationship or, technically, of Tom's infatuation, are presented in an out-of-order sequence, the normal highs and lows of love accentuated by pairing the yin of meet-cutes with the yang of post-breakup pouting. While Tom discovers that his sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz) is right in that an appreciation of the same kooky crap does not a soulmate make, he may not be so wrong about destiny picking out the right one eventually. It may just take a little more time.
(500) Days is director Marc Webb's first feature. He cut his teeth making music videos for Snow Patrol, Counting Crows and Regina Spektor, and he happily retains the visual verve and fluidity of his beginnings. The film is nice to look at although it suffers from a bit too many tricks and trumped-up tropes. There's the non-chronological editing, which is well-paced and effective, but add in a foreignesque come-and-go narration (pleasantly but unnecessarily provided by Jean-Paul Vignon), alternate-reality split screens, a joie de vivre dance number and many other art film cribs, and the final product resembles a demo reel of music video ideas, each valid and interesting, but prone to overcrowding. The screenplay, penned by Pink Panther 2 writing team Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, has cute ideas and some great scenes, but its highs-and-lows focus leaves only a little room for the middling muddle-through period that makes up much of relationships. As such, Tom and Summer are mostly two-dimensional through omission. With the exception of Tom's sister and his sympathetic boss (Clark Gregg), the rest of the cast is completely extraneous, neither colorful nor interesting, just background wallpaper for the lovers to clash against.
Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are excellent, with an easy chemistry and star-making charm, but (500) Days is not their best work. I thought it was impossible for Deschanel to be unlikable in a film, but Summer is a cold, withholding pseudo-naif, her ineffable charm only barely counteracting her underlying disagreeableness. Gordon-Levitt adds complexity to his simple character but still can't elevate Tom above a caricature. He deserves more depth, and Gordon-Levitt has consistently proven that he can deliver.
Although (500) Days is a pleasant departure from the mainstream rom-com blah, it cripples itself with cuteness. The excess of styles, art-crowd insider references and hipper-than-thou soundtrack make it palatable to a small audience, one who already owns the LPs, disseminated Annie Hall and The Graduate and only sings karaoke when drunk or feeling particularly campy. Unlike more mature films in this style--Eternal Sunshine comes to mind--(500) Days deals with particulars, and reveals little about the universals of love. It's is like getting an Easy Bake Oven for your 25th birthday. Ironic and amusing, but you're ready for the real thing.