I missed out on this unconventional romantic comedy when it was first released ten years ago, so when I was in a mood for something light last week I thought I’d give it a go. Though it has some issues and its penchant for indie quirk and twee soundtrack are at times mildly grating, in the end it’s a charmer.
As the movie begins, the nice rich baritone of the anonymous narrator warns the viewer that this is a story about love, not a love story. After we’re introduced to our boy, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and girl, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the movie fast-forwards to the day Summer breaks up with Tom over pancakes. Then it hops around chronologically, showing us their failed relationship and Tom’s attempts to reignite it as snippets of memories, good and bad.
On Day 1, Tom is an instant smitten kitten when he meets Summer, his boss’ new assistant, at the office where he writes greeting cards for a living (somebody has to I guess). They bond over similar tastes in music and TV shows they watched as kids. Tom is a starry-eyed romantic, but Summer proclaims that she doesn’t believe in all that love nonsense; as they draw closer, Summer tells Tom upfront that she is not looking for anything serious and just wants to have fun. Tom’s love-addled brain prefers to interpret it as “let’s take it slow”, with the expectation that eventually Summer will cave in and be his real girlfriend. This refusal to accept reality will cause Tom much misery.
This is a kind of movie that’s bound to cause debates about what it’s trying to say about Tom and Summer and whether it says it effectively, and a quick google search has confirmed exactly that (Blue Valentine with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, though a very different film, was equally fascinating to me for the way it split the sympathies of the audience). Personally, I’m pretty sure that we’re meant to see Tom’s infatuation with Summer as superficial and delusional obsession with an idealised image of a person, and I think there’s nothing particularly wrong with telling the story exclusively from his perspective. This however is not entirely consistent with the way the movie introduces the two characters in the opening credits as if they were equals in the story, only to then ditch Summer’s perspective after the briefest glance at her backstory which mostly concentrates on her physical attractiveness. There are also hints throughout the movie that Summer’s own flaws could have been just as interesting to dig into, and that despite her warning about not wanting a serious relationship she’s not entirely blameless for the whole situation either. So the decision to keep her character an opaque mystery is both understandable and a tad frustrating.
I found the movie’s stylistic flourishes (a musical set piece soundtracked by You Make My Dreams Come True!) and quirky sensibility (a romantic day out in IKEA!) somehow both irritating and charming, which is pretty much the same way I feel about both leads. If you asked me at random if I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel you’d probably get a no, but they’re supremely appealing in this movie and their genuine sparkling chemistry doesn’t hurt either. I however remain unmoved about the two early Regina Spektor songs included in the movie; they’re annoying as hell.
Though it presents itself as anti-rom com and delivers some hard truths about self-deception, (500) Days of Summer is still optimistic on the subject of finding true love and cosmic coincidences, though not in the way its heroes or the audience would initially expect. Good romantic comedies have been thin on the ground in the last ten years, but this one definitely adds to the tally.