(500) Days of Summer (2009)

For Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) is the love of his life. The feeling is, unfortunately, not mutual. And nothing will change that. "(500) Days of Summer."

Directed by Marc Webb. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber. Produced by Mason Novick, Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters, Steven J. Wolfe. Music by Mychael Danna, Rob Simonsen. Photographed by Eric Steelberg. Edited by Alan Edward Bell. Production designed by Laura Fox. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Patricia Belcher, Rachel Boston.

“This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront. This is not a love story.”

So says a narrator at the opening of (500) Days of Summer, a movie that sets us up to anticipate a sunny romantic comedy, and then immediately knocks us down with harsh reality. Unfair? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just wholly appropriate, since 500 Days is actually a story about unmet expectations. It straps itself to a stymieing and bravely unconventional structure, not as a clever gimmick (although it is indeed clever), but as a method for subjectively conveying the head space of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Tom falls hopelessly in love with the enchanting Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and is horrified to discover that, in the end, she doesn’t love him back.

Or maybe she does. Tom doesn’t really know and as a result, neither do we, because we are committed to Tom’s point of view. Summer’s unexpressed inner thoughts quietly keep to themselves. Objectivity becomes a value desperately needed, but unavailable. It’s nice to believe in true love and destiny, but with no one to believe in it with you, you’re stuck in a world of your own. The narrator is absolutely correct that this is not a love story, because love requires two people, and Summer Finn, within Tom’s recollections, is not a real person. She’s an ideal.

It all begins on “Day 1.” Well, that’s true of all stories. But trust me, it helps to know it here. Tom, who works as a composer of greeting cards but wants to be an architect, is pleasant and just plain nice. A romantic at heart. Summer, who drifts onto Tom’s radar one morning when she’s introduced as his boss’ new assistant, has a lovely beauty that catches Tom smitten, despite speculation from others that she is an “uppity, better-than-everyone super-skank.” One morning, while sharing an elevator, Summer catches Tom off guard when she professes her love of The Smiths, and he stares at her, dumbstruck.

They go out for drinks and become nervous enough to start talking about their real feelings. Before long, she makes a tender pass at him in the copy room, and they begin a sweet romance that has its ups and downs, and then eventually a total explosion that leaves him picking up the pieces and trying to discover what went wrong, and how to fix it. His heartbreak fuels the fragmented structure, which bounces around in time as it chronicles their relationship. The evidence is not exactly conclusive, but one thing is clear: Tom Hansen thought he knew what he was getting into when he started dating Summer Finn. And he was very wrong.

Oh, the warnings were there: as Summer and Tom bond, they discuss the prospects of true love and fate, and she rejects his belief in these concepts, valuing instead “having fun while we’re young.” Tom pleasantly disagrees, not seeing the potential obstacle in this disparity between them. Throughout their affair, Summer will shy away from taking their relationship too seriously, which infuriates her lover as time goes on. She clings desperately to the notion of being her own person, and when Tom begins to weigh her down, she cuts him loose, matter-of-factly, only barely alluding to the fact that they’ve been having issues at all. This isn’t pathological cruelty, it’s just the way she is. Tom is crushed, and his attempts to get over her…well, that was silly, I was about to say “constitute the third act.” But, much like the mind of Summer Finn, it ain’t that simple.

500 Days plays out non-linearly: we jump from scene to scene, with labels (“Day 5,” “Day 175,” etc.) orienting us in the chronology of the couple’s courtship. It sounds confusing, but it really isn’t. Our own memories operate non-linearly anyway, so it makes sense that a story that is about memory would follow suit.

What this approach does for 500 Days is to crack open the traditional framework of a romantic comedy, and lay bare its guts. 500 Days opens with a frank outline of its plot, which frees us to discover the film is  not about its formula, but the moments that happen along the way. This method doesn’t just let the quiet scenes breathe with additional life, as they’ve been given a new context; it allows scenes that would normally be hours apart exist back-to-back, and the film invites us to consider them from a skewed perspective. As we see tiny little grace notes that collectively indicate a romance blossoming, and then turning sour, we are left to consider the complexities just out of view, but plainly present. If only we knew more about Summer Finn.

That’s Tom’s problem. Summer Finn is a puzzle, not a villain, and one night an unimpressed blind date sizes up the situation with clarity: “You weren’t cheated on. She didn’t steal. She said she didn’t want a boyfriend.”In fact she didn’t do anything wrong except crush his dreams, which is the worst crime of all. After all, those dreams were his.

Summer is, eventually, far too independent and free-spirited for Tom to truly cope with: her plans include him, until they do not. And he never truly understands her. And so neither do we. Unleavened by Summer’s perspective, some of her motives are mysteries, and Tom’s own recollections are inherently self-serving, glossing over mistakes he might have made. Summer seems positively primed to open up to Tom one night in bed, but when she finished a deeply personal story with “I’ve never told anyone that before,” Tom responds, tenderly but unwisely: “I guess I’m not just anybody.” This moment is played under tender music, despite its implications for what Summer might be thinking. Because to Tom, it’s all about him.

500 Days is a comedy, and it’s a pleasant one: the kind that creates a nice comic tapestry out of recognizable behaviors. It scores many of its points by tapping the feelings men tend to have when they’re pursuing unrequited love: fear, awe, desperation, inadequacy, irrelevancy. Early in the chronology, when Summer is barely aware that Tom even exists, she says her weekend as “go-oo-od,” which leads Tom to endlessly decode that t in greater fits of sadness. Later he extends an olive branch wishing that the two of them “stay friends,” an idea which his real friends react to with world-weary sadness. Tom’s preteen sister, Rachel (Chloe Moretz), is a precocious tomboy who offers advice well beyond her years, and their scenes strike the perfect note of sibling know-it-all-ism: she’s the kind of girl who generally loves her older brother, even when she rolls her eyes at his naiveté. “Just because some girl likes the same boring crap you do doesn’t make her your soul mate,” she sneers, and the look he gives in return helps create an entirely unspoken backstory. Even the asides do heavy lifting in this movie.

So what really happened between Tom and Summer? At times, we’re not sure. Sometimes we’re even less sure. Tom’s big mistake is that he was convinced that Summer was The One, and maybe she is…but not for him. Shaped by decades of pop songs and movies, Tom truly believes in the big stuff like fate, destiny, and love at first sight. Although that puts him into conflict with Summer, he is steadfast even while she drifts away.

The film, which is sympathetic to Tom’s perspective, plays with templates from other movies in order to put us in the pop culture-obsessed mind of Tom Hanson: there are dream sequences, heightened realities, dance routines, and an art-house film scene that plays like a mad collaboration between Fellini, Bergman and The Joker. More crucially, some scenes thave us wondering what the reality truly is, even when all appears to be naturalistic. It’s appropriate that Tom works at a company that makes greeting cards, because he unknowingly specializes in counterfeit emotions. His loss of Summer is a loss of faith itself, and his reaction to that at work is almost worth the price of admission all by itself.

The photography, by Eric Steelberg, shuns the traditional approach of lighting Los Angeles as grim and ugly, instead opting for a color palette that sometimes smolders, and occasionally bursts with warm magic. The moment where Tom, after spending the night with Summer, bursts into a musical number in the streets of Downtown L.A., could have been annoyingly post-modern, but instead it pulsates with a bit of mad genius. Subtle beauty is found within the skyline of Los Angeles, which mocks and supports Tom’s plight in the same stroke. And then there is one of the film’s most haunting set pieces: Tom tries to repair his relationship with Summer by attending her rooftop party, and his expectations for this gathering play in his head, side by side with what reality has in store. Perfectly timed and deliciously choreographed, it’s full of little details that climax with the tiniest one of all, which hits us hard.

It would all be a hollow exercise if it were not for the performances, which are…well, there’s no other way to say it: pitch-perfect. Gordon-Levitt, a very good young actor, strikes the perfect balance in capturing Tom Hansen: the sunny disposition that masks such longing need. So fresh-faced and pure, he conveys a playful innocence that is never cloying, always likable. Gordon-Levitt’s mastery of Tom’s awkwardness creates the perfect moment when the couple shares their first kiss in the copy room, which is tactile and trembling, maybe even a little scary. Deschanel, as Summer, has the tricky task of giving a vibrant, natural performance, free of mannerism, while inhabiting a story that, by definition, must deny her a complete voice. Winsome and fragile, Deschanel exists as Tom’s manifestation of womanhood, with quiet depths that Tom can plainly see, but never had the aptitude to crack. In essence, Deschanel doesn’t play Summer, she plays a simulation of Summer that runs in Tom’s head, taunting him, loving him, inconsistent and inscrutable, and the one time she does level with him, well…is it really her? Did that ever happen? Or did Tom need it to happen, so he invented it? Deschanel plays it like it could be either, and still finds the kernel of compelling truth within it. That’s really hard to do. Marc Webb’s direction, bringing all of these resources to their zenith, is impeccable.

It’s very hard to make a comedy, especially a romantic one, because the territory is so warmed over: each year showers us with dozens of simple entertainments about attractive people who connect because they are the stars of whatever film they are in. (500) Days of Summer, which is a smart and perceptive romantic comedy, succeeds most especially because it trades on the kind of emotions many romantic comedies try their hardest to avoid: the pain of loneliness, despair, the inherent insecurity of men and their inability to sometimes even want to understand women. For men like Tom Hansen, the Summer Finns of this world provide a valuable cue in taking ownership of one’s own maturity, and recognizing that maybe fate exists, maybe not. But if it does, you must find and maintain it yourself. Our vision of Summer Finn may be reserved, but she does impart one thought: that life is half-serendipity, half-autonomy, and the halves are constantly in flux. (500) Days of Summer is about relationships, not just between people, but between the things bigger than them: the ones that make life miserable, and the ones that make it worth living. And it stays true to that duality, all the way down to the very last line.

GRADE: A

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