(500) Days of Summer (2009)

My list of great modern romances includes Roxanne, Say Anything, Groundhog Day, Until Sunrise, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Atonement. If (500) Days of Summer isn’t quite in that league, it’s not because it poses as an anti-romantic comedy (the boy doesn’t get the girl, which is stated at the outset); rather, it’s because the filmmakers’ storytelling ideas keep crowding out any chance for us to really empathize with the characters. Great romances wipe you out – because you can’t separate yourself from the characters, and they stay in your head. As likable as the actors in (500) Days of Summer are, and as effervescent and clever as the writing and direction mostly is, it all wisps away afterward. (This was also the failure of Annie Hall as a romance, although its other virtues compensated.) Nevertheless, I just watched this film twice in a 24-hour period, and I will probably revisit it many times to come.

The protagonist, Tom, is a character I relate to – someone who holds out for world-changing, knock-your-socks-off, all-encompassing love. He believes in fate and in the existence of soul mates. Over the course of the referenced 500 days, he will have his beliefs confirmed and shattered and perhaps reconstructed. This is a promising dramatic arc, and as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt he is likable enough. Voice-over narration tells us that Tom was influenced by “early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” I found myself thinking that most of Tom’s actions seemed filtered through a pop filter – he was never in the moment, but always a step or two removed (the real action was in his head, where everything comingled with his fantasies.) He was never fully committed to the moment, which I think was intended to make him seem hip but also explains why the object of his fascination (Summer, played as a moon-eyed goof by Zooey Deschanel) can’t take him as seriously as he wants. This idea isn’t fleshed out by the filmmakers, as it would have been by Eternal Sunshine’s Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. Still, there’s enough to the idea that quirky moments like a musical dance fantasia (to Hall & Oats’ ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’) fit both dramatically and tonally.

About that dance number: it’s such a goofy, buoyant piece that it almost derails the movie. It encapsulates the feelings of being in love far more completely than Gordon-Levitt is otherwise able to with his performance (he seems much more comfortable moping, as in his “she dumped me” scenes.) The choreography and the music have such zest and punch that you miss them afterward and pine for their return until the very end. Steve Martin and Fred Schepisi had the same kind of sparkle going in Roxanne, but they parceled it out through the entire movie, continually surprising and delighting us.

Another gimmick that works in context but falls short dramatically is the split-screen describing Tom’s expectations versus reality at a crucial juncture. The cleverness of the idea and the ease of execution almost overcome the fact that not only is an important dramatic moment shortchanged, but also that the device doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know. For this reason, it might have played better earlier in the film. In Atonement, a late revelation performs the same function but superbly – not only the characters’ but also the audience’s preconceptions are shattered and then refracted and multiplied. Storytelling devices can’t be stronger than the story being told.

My nitpicking makes it seem like I didn’t care for this film – that’s not true. I liked it so much I wanted it to be better. I recognized themes from my own life and I wanted them to be more fully represented and explored than they were. (This guy endured 500 days of unrequited love? Give me a break – that’s nothing.) Still, the end is a genuine kick and it’s well set-up and perfectly executed. If the structural playfulness seems to exist more for its own sake than out of dramatic necessity (in contrast to Groundhog Day and Eternal Sunshine), then it’s worth considering what this says about how the movie’s characters (and about how we, as viewers) filter the events of life through custom-made, pop-influenced filters. One reviewer called this structure an “iPod shuffle,” which seems about right, all things considered. I don’t think the story would be as compelling on its own terms; its characters don’t have the chemistry or the worldview to fully engage us, the way more traditionally structured films like Say Anything and Until Sunrise used those tools to sweep their characters (and us) away. Quibbles aside, (500) Days of Summer is “of the moment,” and it captures the quirks of modern romance as they exist for a certain population of culturally literate twenty-somethings who don’t seem to have anything else to do. And that ending is great – your socks finally get knocked off, and you float away on a smile.