In concept, (500) Days of Summer sounds like one of those wretchedly desperate movies starring hip young actors playing hip young people who bond over their love of cult rock bands. Onscreen, though, the movie is something entirely different - funny and sad, giddy and melancholy, exhilarating and true. This is a romantic comedy that makes the concept of romantic comedies appealing again - that reminds you how resonant and transporting they can be when they're done right.
Directed by Marc Webb, a veteran of music videos, and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also co-wrote The Pink Panther 2 (eclectic, they are), the movie takes a road-less-traveled approach to its boy-meets-girl story, focusing exclusively on the emotional reality of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a writer of greeting-card slogans who falls for Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the office's new intern.
Taking over the traditionally feminine role of most movie romances, Tom is the lovestruck fool this time, the one who doesn't pay attention when Summer tells him she's not looking for a serious relationship and doesn't really believe in love. All Tom sees is reaffirmation of what he feels for Summer, instead of noticing her warm and friendly remoteness and realizing that she genuinely likes and cares for him but is biding her time romantically until something better comes along.
That description of their relationship sounds harsher than it plays out in the movie: The fact that she's just not that into him is always clear, but subtle. The title (500) Days of Summer alone signals that Tom and Summer's time together will have a definite end, and the movie hops around within those 500 days, from day 167 to day 408 and back again, so we see the affair simultaneously intensify and crumble.
The device gives the picture the bittersweet quality of a memory you look back on with fondness and regret, the way you might think back on The One Who Got Away: You might wish it had turned out differently, but you're glad it happened anyway.
Director Webb brings all kinds of cinematic tricks to a genre that normally has little use for them: An omniscient voiceover narrator, bits of animation, a split-screen sequence contrasting the fantasy of Tom's hopeful expectations during a reconciliation with Summer with the devastasting reality of what actually happened. But the directorial fluorishes never feel jarring or flashy. When Tom walks to work the morning after sleeping with Summer for the first time, the movie busts into a musical number complete with marching bands and cartoon birds to illustrate his happiness, building and building in ridiculous exuberance, and your heart soars right along with his.
Since his TV sitcom days on 3rd Rock From the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has appeared primarily in edgy, dramatic films (The Lookout, Mysterious Skin), but his lack of comedic experience is a boon, making Tom seem all that more honest and endearing as he clumsily feels his his way through the first serious relationship of his life. The luminous Deschanel, so often cast as the light that changes a man's life (All the Real Girls, Yes Man), allows us to understand and sympathize with Summer, even though the film never stops to explain her (this is Tom's story, not hers).
About the only false beat in the entire movie is the last scene, although the film's closing line is so perfect, you forgive the momentary lapse into cliche. "This is not a love story," intones a narrator at the start of (500) Days of Summer. "This is a story about love." This is also a movie to fall in love with.
(500) Days of Summer opens in South Florida on Friday July 31.