If you really must fit 500 Days of Summer into a genre the most logical label is the Romantic Comedy. The film centers around a romance and a lot of the film is played for comedic effect. Yet calling a film of a romantic comedy presupposes that the lead couple, while initially hating each other, will get together in the end. 500 Days of Summer is not about the getting together bit, but the messy breaking up that happens afterwards.
The film is up front about this, saying that it’s not a love story. Yet that isn’t to say the film is not about love. After all, to get to the breakup the film has to set up the love between the two and where their love went wrong. The boy, Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), believes in true love and in searching for “the one”, the girl, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), does not.
The film follows Tom’s perspective, jumping back and forth between the days when he thought he was in love and the days after the breakup. The cutting between the two is often played to comedic effect as one moment Tom is soaring, the world is bright and the music swells and the next moment, say, 200 days later, Tom is slouched over, it’s a dark and rainy day and a somber tune kicks in. Nonlinear narratives have a way of being unnecessarily mess and confusing, but as it’s a constant back and forth between two separate phases of a relationship it becomes a table tennis game of emotions and creates a rhythm that drives the film.
There’s also a constant back and forth between these two ideologies of Summer and Tom. As the two argue over drinks the line is drawn. On one side is the view of fated love where the perfect partner will make you happy forever, on the other side is the belief that love is an illusion and all you can hope for is someone who will make life enjoyable. After the breakup Tom wrestles over what he presupposes to be true and he comes to some dark conclusions.
One of the strong points of this film is how it makes these characters very dark, yet likable. Summer is up front from day one that this isn’t serious and it becomes obvious that she’s in it for the fun of it—and the sex. Tom tricks himself into thinking that even though they are just “friends” that he can take this relationship somewhere, that somehow Summer can become his. Summer lets him believe this and Tom keeps on believing it despite what everyone around him says. And after he loses her Tom talks is if she is some kind of possession he lost and intends to get back.
As selfish and self absorbed these characters are you can’t help but like them. The only real reason you end up liking them is because of the performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Levitt has that awkward charm that makes his nervous and unsure moments endearing. But when in breakup mode he has this internal seething he lets simmer just beneath the surface, giving just glimpses of it after the breakup. Deschanel has always had that cute, irresistible look but she can also be surprisingly venerable when she needs. Where she really shines is in playing everything just right where she’s just a bit cold and distant to the world around her, as if she’s not even occupying her own skin.
After the breakup as Tom looks back and has a kind of revelation. Instead of blaming the people the film shifts the blame to the media, saying it was the stories in movies that created an illusionary view of love. It’s a rather poor way to allow the characters to escape judgment for their own actions. Never at any point does either member admit their relationship was wrong or that they have any regret. On the other hand it does serve as a scathing critique on the ideas behind the romantic comedy genre.
Like the characters, this film has its shares of flaws. An overly-cute narration that quickly becomes a writing crutch, a few poorly shot sequences and the aforementioned shifting of blame never really resolves that characters’ behavior. Yet the film’s strength as a commentary on love and a critique of media depictions of love makes these squabbles minor. It’s surprising to find a film so honest, true and frank in what it has to say and while it lets its message outweigh the characters, that doesn’t stop what it has to say from being any less meaningful or powerful.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing