On the surface, there’s really nothing unique or special about (500) Days of Summer apart from its maddeningly oh-so-clever use of brackets in the title. But unlike most romantic comedies and more like actual, real life relationships, it’s the perfectly nuanced nothing-specialness of the central relationship which makes the film so enjoyable.
Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a greetings card writer who one day claps eyes on the boss’ new assistant Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). He knows immediately that she is ‘the one’ and clumsily pursues her. When he finally gets close to her, she tells him that she’s not looking for a relationship and she doesn’t believe in true love. They split up, he mopes around trying to get over her and begins to look back on their time together.
It’s better than it sounds (in fact it sounds a bit like the tale of woe that you’d hear from one of your boring mates down the pub). The story itself is so mundane that it would star Jennifer Aniston and Matthew McConaughey if it were told straight. However, its stars are a large part of what makes the movie – Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are recognisable but not in an A-list, cover-of-Heat way. That’s what makes the characters so sympathetic – they could be your best mate, your brother, that girl in your office. They hurt, they cry unashamedly and, in the case of Tom, they drunkenly sing karaoke.
Gordon-Levitt, in particular, impresses. A far cry from the weird kid in Third Rock from the Sun, he once again proves his leading man status after his bruised turn in Brick. He strikes just the right note as an ordinary guy – vulnerable, disgruntled, deeply human and seemingly devoid of ‘interesting’, unconvincing quirks.
This is strange since the movie is full of neat gimmicks. Tom goes to the cinema – a potentially throwaway scene – and sees him imagining himself in a black and white European arthouse film. The morning after his first night with Summer, his sheer elation is expressed through an increasingly gaudy dance number, complete with cheerleaders and a cartoon bird. It’s with touches like this that the tone of the doom-and-gloom plot is raised, keeping it zipping along at a nice rate, rather than weighed down with indie kookiness.
And, yes, the story is presented in a seemingly random order (those pesky brackets actually serve a purpose, to frame the changing numbers, rolling like a fruit machine), but this makes it akin less to Memento or Pulp Fiction, and more to the arbitrariness of human memory. Immediately after we see an early in-joke in their relationship (later revisited in a wonderful Doves-soundtracked scene in Ikea of all places), we see the same gag repeated hundreds of days later, but by now, like their relationship, it has lost its sheen. It works in just the same way as your brain would connect two related events. Moments of unbridled joy (Tom and Summer attempt to outdo each other screaming a one-word obscenity in a park) jostle for attention with scenes of inconsolable misery.
In both celebrating the euphoria of love and bemoaning the brutal comedown of rejection, (500) Days of Summer succeeds where other romantic comedies fail by adopting a positive, whimsical tone – it seems to say love hurts but it’s worth the pain. It’s not perfect – an on-off voiceover gets in the way even if it is occasionally necessary, and Tom’s guru-like little sister is one quirk that’s a little hard to take – but it still remains a winning example of a humdrum genre. (4/5)