In real life, the tiny details of other people's relationships are, like other people's dreams, usually best stored in the private pockets of other people's minds. That's where they are riveting and important. Let loose for public consumption, the minutiae of someone else's broken heart is often agonizingly dull.
(500) Days of Summer is a charming, pop-intellectual road map of romantic devastation.
But in art, this isn't always the case. The spry anti-romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer indulges in a tiny bit of over-sharing, but is ultimately a charming, pop-intellectual road map of romantic devastation.
The film's structure is ambitious: with a neck-straining nod to the French New Wave, scenes hopscotch back and forth along the continuum of a 500-day-long relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). But early on, we learn that despite a promising start, they don't even make it to day 300 as a couple.
Directed by Marc Webb from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, this is a guy film for guys who respect romance. These days, it's the rare male-driven comedy that can sustain 90 minutes without a single fart joke. Instead, the filmmakers are comfortable tossing around casual high-art references, as when one character counsels his grieving, dumped friend to do "like Henry Miller" and make his ex into literature.
The screenwriters' sympathies lie with the dumped, not the dumper — the 200 days of misery are entirely Tom's. Reared on the music of The Smiths, he's a naturally morose fellow anyway, even though he peddles optimism at a greeting card company. But Tom still believes in love, as he explains, drunkenly, to Summer, the fetching new assistant in the office, who loves The Smiths, too. (That Morrissey is always playing cupid!)
She tells him she is not a believer, and does not want a relationship, but one starts anyway, despite her ambivalence. And it's a sweet one, skipping across all the touchstones of a certain kind of mid-20s hipster affection: the Pixies karaoke; the trip to IKEA where they make fun of the Swedish language; record store browsing; and mix CDs.
The morning after their first sexual encounter, an ecstatic Tom leaves the house and hits the streets of Los Angeles with a shimmy in his step that turns into a full-fledged dance. The city joins in as he Pied Pipers to work followed by a marching band and all manner of high-kicking strangers happy to share in the high of a new relationship's First Time.
But even as the couple enacts the script of young love, the affection balance is never equal. Summer's self-imposed distance drives Tom — who is head over heels within a nanosecond — crazy. When Summer ends it, Tom, an aspiring architect, is left standing amidst the buildings he loves, which turn to pencil marks and fade. The film is filled with these kinds of visual surprises, and while the cleverness occasionally overstays its welcome, the execution is done with a kind of elevating energy and inventiveness.
With his narrowed eyes — he always looks like he's just been slapped — Gordon-Levitt well conveys a kind of crippling sadness that only happens to people who are true romantics. Deschanel played almost an identical role a few years ago in All the Real Girls, a much different film that also dealt artfully with young male heart-pummeling. With her unblinking blue eyes and retro-50s wardrobe — not to mention an off-screen side career as a singer in the band She & Him — Deschanel clearly embodies some kind of It Girl unattainability that makes young arty guys adore and fear her.
But Summer's aloofness doesn't come off as evil; there are no villains in this movie. Anyone who's been there — and who hasn't? — will recognize the pain of falling in love and finding no one there to catch you.
(500) Days of Summer opens in Toronto on July 17, with other Canadian cities to follow.
Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.