(500) Days of Summer opens Friday in select theaters
(500) Days of Summer is a twee romantic comedy about Tom, a young greeting card writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who falls hard for Summer, the boss's fancy-free new assistant (Zooey Deschanel).
I have a soft spot for meet-cute movies, and while I tried to fall for director Mark Webb's debut, I could only find it occasionally likeable. What sticks most about (500) Days is that it's cloying and dishonest, indulging all of the clichés and false optimism of an average love story while masquerading as something that is questioning those things.
A narrator tells us that Tom, due to a childhood misreading of The Graduate, believes in soul mates and everlasting love. In contrast, Summer is an über cutie who thinks she's just being honest when she says she doesn't believe in love, perhaps not realizing what a tantalizing challenge that makes her for Tom. Jumping around in time, Webb (working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) starts near the end, telling us that Tom and Summer's relationship doesn't work out. But don't be deceived; (500) Days cuts with a dull blade.
Tom first falls in love with Summer when she tells him on the elevator that she loves The Smiths. Of course, there's nothing wrong with loving The Smiths, or loving a girl who loves The Smiths, but where the hell has Tom been? Don't all cute girls love The Smiths? Doesn't every white person this side of a tractor pull at least like The Smiths?
Maybe getting upset about the fact that Tom and Summer don't bond over a more obscure band is nitpicky, but moments like these make (500) Days seem out of touch. For a movie that prides itself on name-dropping cultural identifiers, it doesn't pick many that tell us anything unique about Tom or Summer: They love Magritte, the Knight Rider theme song and Belle and Sebastian. While I think that Summer and Tom's affection for these things is supposed to make them seem special, it just makes them seem normal, or—worse—bland.
But the real reason these conversations about paintings and pop stand out is not just because the works are so poorly chosen but because the cultural armature is so gratuitous. The signifiers substitute for real rapport, of which Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel have very little. You could say that that's the whole point—that this is a story about a couple not working—but these two hit it off well enough to go to Ikea together (twice!), so I'd like to see some of the reasons that aren't albums or films why they temporarily fall for each other.
Deschanel is no help, exacerbating the script's tendency toward preciousness, demoting an underwritten character to a nonentity. It's not the doe-eyed Deschanel's fault that she's insufferably cute; I'm sure her rote delivery and glassy stares make plenty of boys swoon, but I found Tom's intense devotion to Summer hard to understand. Of course, boys get obsessed with boring girls all the time, but I don't think that's what (500) Days is attempting to examine. Gordon-Levitt, who does admirably little to ingratiate himself to audiences, makes a believable, understandable character out of Tom, someone who wishes he were an optimist but is too easily frustrated to pull it off. The way he can gather up the quick rise of temper that comes from confusion gives (500) Days its most substantial moments.
To be fair, while the pop patter falls flat, there is a choice visual reference to Star Wars, and while the dialogue about music is off-key, Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True" is a happy addition to the soundtrack. It's telling that the use of pop culture is more effective when it's outré—it feels more genuine.
I've focused so much on the things I dislike in this movie because I was so frustrated by it; Webb and the screenwriter think (and tell us via narrator) that they've created some kind of oddity here with the ending. Their movie has moments, such as a split-screen depiction of a party that contrasts expectations and reality, but (500) Days wants to have the familiar pleasures of a love story while giving its audience the feeling that it's watching something more complicated. Ultimately, the filmmakers achieve neither, tacking on an optimistic ending to a movie that wasn't nearly as crush-worthy or cynical as it thought it was to begin with.