(500) Days of Summer: Infatuation and Its Discontents

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Flirting, or: The Painful Awkwardness of Youth.

(500) Days of Summer, alas, is not a movie about perpetual vacation. What it is instead, however, is hardly any less pleasant. With great humor and snark, this wacky rom-com creates a moving adventure out of one man’s supposedly simple loss. It’s hip, clever, and refreshingly pure in a genre so easily hijacked by superfluous sex and corny jokes. Few movies manage to portray love’s struggles with such vivacity and openness.

(500) Days recounts, in zigzag fashion, the 500 days of the relationship-friendship-whateverit’scalledship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). They meet as colleagues at a greeting-card company, where Tom, a trained architect, has spent several years inventing cheesy slogans to make a living. When he first bumps into Summer, his boss’ new assistant, his whole world literally screeches to a halt. After a series of clumsy efforts to get on speaking terms, the two of them discover feelings for each other and start dating. Or do they? For 300-some days, Summer punts Tom’s efforts to define their relationship, leaving Tom continually wondering whether he’s a boyfriend…or stuck in the dreaded friend-zone. From the start, he’s absolutely certain he’s found “the one.” If only she were as sure.

Romance movies revolve around what keeps the two lovers apart. In (500) Days, the obstacle is Tom’s excessive infatuation, an infatuation that prevents him from accepting the glaring weaknesses in his relationship with Summer. It’s the kind of idealistic, all-or-nothing attachment that, in spite of its familiarity to many people, Hollywood tends to gloss over. Here, the boy doesn’t ever really get the girl for any amount of time. Yet Tom’s failure resonates precisely because it hits a truth even diehard romantics have to acknowledge: in real life, ships sink more often than they float. The movie finds its groove not by dealing with love itself, but by showing how our understanding of it slowly evolves through painstaking trial and error.

But this isn’t the only way (500) Days isn’t a typical “love story.” In the vein of zany forerunners like Amelie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Mark Webb dispenses with almost all the conventions of “traditional” movie-making, inverting chronology, inserting omnipotent voice-overs, and liberally using side-by-side montages to tweak reality and immerse us in the frenetic, anxious workings of Tom’s all-too-human mind. Throughout the whole 95 minutes, Webb dangles familiar tropes in front of us and then promptly rips them all up, a maddeningly engrossing game of expectations that allows us to better appreciate the unique twists in Tom’s pursuit of love. We feel as if we’re directly watching Tom try to put the pieces together to find some kind of closure. It’s an absorbing portrait enriched both by a script brimming with hilariously believable dialogue and by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, even if he can never shake off his “cool guy” aura, throws himself wholeheartedly into his character, playing awkward, angry, and puppy dog without ever missing a beat.

The place the movie’s immersion abilities really shine is with Summer herself. If you think about it, you really shouldn’t like her. After all, she feigns complete ignorance of Tom’s romantic intentions after 300 days of shower sex, movie nights, and copy room make-out sessions. Her actions display a degree of frivolity and selfishness that only the greatest push-over (read: Tom) could abide. Yet the movie wraps us in Tom’s world to the point that we can’t help but see Summer as he sees her: a sparkling jewel you can’t afford to even lightly touch lest it abruptly shatter. You don’t even realize until the end that you barely know anything about Summer beyond how “knobby” her knees are. Zooey Deschanel’s interpretation only further reinforces this characterization: she’s chirpy and energetic but always surface, as if she’s deliberately trying to keep you from looking past her sunny façade. Because of all this, Tom’s infatuation not only drives the plot but also buries itself into the movie’s basic design, preventing you from ever thinking about Summer’s behavior in a thoughtful manner. It’s a built-in distortion factor that makes the ecstasy, paranoia, and misery Tom variously experiences all the more vivid and powerful.

Out of many attempts, 21st-century Hollywood has only managed to create a few truly memorable romance movies, like Before Sunset and Lost in Translation. (500) Days of Summer undeniably deserves to join that group. Aside from being a well-made, unconventional “love story,” it’s also both a meaningful tale about growing up and an oblique statement on the importance of distinguishing fantasy from fact. Without being cynical, it presents us the sobering truths about love; without being soppy, it still ends leaving us happy and hopeful. Who would’ve guessed unwanted break-ups could make such an irresistible watch?


(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

Running Time: 95 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Produced by: Mason Novick, Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters, Steven Wolfe, Scott Hyman

Directed by: Marc Webb

Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael Weber

Image of Tom/Summer from here.

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