‘(500) Days of Summer’: Longest days of your life

July 13, 2009

The “summer” in the title of Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” refers not to the season but to a girl, named Summer and played by Zooey Deschanel.

 

The number in the title refers to the length of time between the day the film’s hero, a likable guy named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), first spots Summer and the day he sees her for the last time and seemingly flushes her out of his system.

 

In between? It’s a bumpy ride – at least for Tom – and an enjoyable mix of the ecstatic and the heartsick for the audience. Marc Webb’s film – from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber – is pleasingly offbeat, if inconsistently quirky, as it bounces through time, forward and backward, in the life of this doomed relationship.

 

That’s giving nothing away; Webb uses title cards showing which day of the relationship we’re about to see and, within the first 10 minutes, has taken us from a scene of romantic happiness to a moment in which a highly distraught Tom is breaking all his dishes and has to be talked down by his calmer, saner young sister (Chloe Moretz). And so it goes – a day or two during the uncertain early days, a downbeat scene from the pre-breakup period (she knows, he doesn’t), a ray of sunshine during the sweet time when their feelings are strongest and most in synch.

 

If there’s a problem with this device, it’s that Webb abandons it about halfway through the film. Yes, some may find it too cute, too clever, too whatever – but if you’re going to toss it in, then commit to it. Don’t just discard it to get on with a more linear kind of story-telling.

 

That’s a minor caveat, however, in a film that has a lot of heart – not to mention heartache of the post-adolescent obsessive romantic. As it quickly becomes clear, this is a couple that has no future. But you keep watching because these characters are so likable and because we’ve all been conditioned to expect happy endings. So you keep hoping that, while things look rocky on Day 335, perhaps this couple will be able to turn things around.

 

Tom certainly is willing to make the effort. He’s a would-be architect from New Jersey who has ended up in L.A., where he works writing greeting cards. It’s not a particularly challenging job, but Tom sees it as a placeholder while he figures out what he really wants to do.

 

Then he meets Summer, hired as the new assistant to his boss (Clark Gregg). After an uncertain start, before very long they’re snogging in the copy room, then dating, then sleeping together.

 

From the start, however, Summer makes it clear that she’s not a big believer in commitment and relationships – that she isn’t convinced that love even exists. Tom, by contrast, is a heart-on-the-sleeve type who ignores what Summer says because he secretly believes that he’s the one who will be able to change her mind by the sheer overwhelming power of his feelings for her.

 

He doesn’t say that – at least not right away. But as they spend more time together and get closer, he begins to take it for granted that she will make the leap – and she never does. So he pressures her, whether he’s punching an obnoxious guy who comes on to her at a bar (and getting his ass kicked in the process), initiating discussions that attempt to quantify their feelings for each other or simply misreading her moods. Eventually, it’s too much: He has those feelings but, alas, she does not – and she knows she never will.

 

It’s the ultimate impasse, the one you have to be this young not to understand when it’s happening to you. And Gordon-Levitt plays it beautifully, making Tom a likable, witty – but needy – guy, one whose world collapses when his romance does. He makes you care about Tom, feel for him, wish you could buy him a drink (though, really, only time will allow him to learn the lesson).

 

Deschanel seems caught in roles as the lovably quirky waif, one who’s brighter and has a lot more inner fortitude than she appears to have. But she makes the most of this one, as a girl who attracts men who want to take care of her when all she wants is someone to hang with. Deschanel has the mercury slipperiness of someone attuned to the slightest shifts in that sense of entitlement/ownership that some men can develop after spending a certain amount of time with a woman.

 

“(500) Days of Summer” is bittersweet, a movie whose many laughs are balanced by the moments of heartbreak and despair by a young man you wish you could pat on the back and reassure. I’d call it a date movie – except this romantic comedy is likely to cause more arguments than agreements.

 

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