Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an aspiring architect who currently earns his living as a writer for a greeting card company. After meeting his bosses new secretary, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), he comes to find that they both have a lot in common and falls head over heels for her. After dating her for a while, though, he realizes there’s one fundamental difference between the two of them: he believes in true love and soul mates, and is looking for a committed relationship; she believes in none of that and is only wanting something casual.
Romantic comedies always face the difficult task in avoiding the numerous trappings many of its kind have fallen prey to. You know…
- The climactic declaration of love in a public setting.
- The misunderstanding that leads to a breakup, which leads to a montage of both parties being sad, which then leads to them getting back together at the end (usually by way of a public declaration of love).
- Stopping the one they’ve always loved at an airport, train station, bus station, their wedding (always by way of a public declaration of love).
- The bet or no strings attached pact that – go figure – leads to them actually falling in love… and once again, ends with another public declaration of love.
It gives me wicked bad acid reflux just thinking of it, and I pray to God Matthew McConaughey doesn’t get the urge to say fuck it now that he has an Oscar and decide to call up Kate Hudson for another film pairing.
Seriously, watch YouTube. Everyone knows those public wedding proposals end with the girl either slapping the guy or running away.
But every now and then, we the viewers are treated to a rom-com that actually works, whether it offers smart dialogue and well-drawn characters like Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets (both by writer/director James L. Brooks), or something quirky and inventive like Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Much like the latter two films, especially Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 1977 film, (500) Days of Summer is a fresh and immensely appealing rom-com that brings revitalized life to the awfully tired genre.
Unlike the worst of its kind, (500) Days of Summer doesn’t play by the genre rules or sugarcoat a forced happily ever after ending. This film doesn’t end with wedding bells or a public declaration of love, and it wants to make clear that “this isn’t a love story”. From the opening disclaimer, we know that the boy doesn’t get the “girl of his dreams”, but it’s watching how it all started and what caused it to fall apart that makes the film so engaging. Director Marc Webb and his team of writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, present the film in a non-linear format (a day counter is used, so not to throw the viewers off track), all from Tom’s point of view, that cuts from one random day to another beautifully (thanks to Alan Edward Bell’s first-rate editing). It’s as if we have a front row seat inside the mind of someone recalling back fragmented memories of a past doomed relationship.
At times, Webb indulges in a few flights of fancy that could’ve felt like a gimmick, but since this is told from Tom’s rose-colored glasses POV, they work great here ’cause they’re moments viewers can immediately relate to. How many of us have finally gotten that first real relationship and felt like practically dancing in the streets, flash mob style, to Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True”? Or, when it all comes crashing down, imagined ourselves as characters from an Ingmar Bergman film as we drown away in our sorrows and curse the bitch for ever existing? Even when the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur, Webb, Neustadter and Weber, depict love and relationships here with a much needed dose of grounded reality and truth.
What makes or breaks any rom-com depends on the chemistry, or lack thereof, between its two leads, and thankfully, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel generate chemistry together in spades. Over the course of the past 15 years, Gordon-Levitt has developed into one of the finest young actors in the business, and here he hits all the right notes as the likable fool in love who’s both easy to please, easy to break and hopelessly disillusioned at the thought that Summer’s the “One” (there’s a split-screen representation between Tom playing out what he expects and what actually happens that’s both funny, poignant and heartbreaking). Zooey Deschanel, who’s so gosh darn cute as a button, is sweet, smart, uncompromisingly honest and independent, and has exactly the right presence and personality to play a character like Summer.
Both Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, along with writers Neustadter and Weber, never resort to turning the two into he’s right/she’s wrong or vice versa. We understand and feel for Tom’s frustration over Summer’s lack of interest in a committed relationship (which leads to some hysterically funny moments, particularly two contrasting monologues from Tom on what he loves/hates about Summer), but we also understand her reasons as to why she’s so hesitant. Both at first think they know for certain about what they want, but as the film progresses they learn the way love works and their perspective on it isn’t always black and white, neat and tidy, and exactly how they planned it to happen. The character growth we see in both Tom and Summer (although not right away in Tom’s case) is something that’s tragically lacking in most rom-com’s today.
Refreshingly honest and led by two extremely charming, offbeat performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer is a remarkable feature-film debut for both director Marc Webb and writing duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. While the rom-com formula has been around for decades prior to this film, Webb, Neustadter and Weber have taken an overly familiar genre and crafted something truly inventive and stylishly clever. This is certainly one of the best romantic comedies of the 21st century.