“This is not a love story,” declares the opening narration of (500) Days Of Summer. And true enough, those expecting a straightforward indie romcom may find themselves somewhat surprised by Marc Webb’s debut feature.
But what they (and anyone else willing to give it a try) will find is something altogether better. If current mainstream outings like The Ugly Truth or The Proposal epitomise how artificial and un-romantic Hollywood romcoms can be (to me at least), then (500) Days shows how good we can have it when filmmakers are willing and able to do something different. A film about love and relationships that makes you feel, in turns, as giddy and as sad and as vulnerable as the real thing, (500) Days makes for a wonderful antidote to the conveyor belt of romcom dross we’re so often used to.
Gone is the traditional linear narrative of a couple falling in love, breaking up, and getting back together – (500) Days moves backwards and forwards in time (think Following / Memento era Christopher Nolan) to tell the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Tom, an architect who’s somehow stumbled into writing greeting cards for a living, falls head over heels for new girl in the office Summer, and thus begins a year and a half love affair between the two.
Starting on day 290, post break-up, before rewinding back to Day 1, and then launching into a potted history of each of the 2 main characters, the film sets its stall out early – a knowingly arch narrator, excursions into black and white, charts and graphs to depict the unexpected success of Belle & Sebastien’s The Boy with the Arab Strap album. Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber use just about every device in the book, which initially comes off a bit clumsy and self-consciously arty in the film’s first half hour.
But soon the film finds a wonderful rhythm, and the forays into the weird and wonderful feel truly organic – a song and dance routine by Levitt that effectively captures the euphoria of the start of a relationship (and which may just be the best use ever of Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams); a cinema trip by a depressed Levitt that sees him on screen in a series of mock French New Wave / Bergman films; or a split screen sequence playing out two variations of an anticipated reconciliation that would make Brian De Palma proud. And watch out for a terrific Harrison Ford reference that brings a smile a mile wide.
Yet the film is far more than a series of standout moments, and manages to paint an incredibly honest and real portrait of what it is to fall in love, and how hard it can be when things don’t go the way you think they will. Central to this is Gordon-Levitt. Barely off screen, he turns in a performance that confirms his enormous potential post Mysterious Skin and Brick, delicately balancing the funny and sad to create a character that feels like a bona fide real person. In a world where Matthew McConaughey appears content to recycle the same wafer thin character year-on-year, it’s a breath of fresh air.
If Deschanel feels a little sidelined and underwhelming by comparison, then it’s not all her fault. Her Summer seems less a character than a construct, the perceived true love of Levitt’s desperate romantic Tom, or seemingly an amalgamation of the filmmakers’ past loves. And in this respect the film is unapologetically male in its viewpoint, telling the ‘he said’ side of the story and relegating Deschanel to a mere supporting role.
Elsewhere though, the film has a supporting cast that adds a winning mix of laughs and heart. Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler as Tom’s friends McKenzie and Paul overcome any subtle generic stereotypes they may fall into (the rambunctious best friend and straight-laced best friend respectively) to give the film a pleasingly rounded feel. While dependable supporting player Clark Gregg has a handful of nicely played comedy moments as Tom’s boss.
Ultimately, (500) Days is every bit as good as the hype surrounding it suggests, and far greater than you’d expect any film written by the people behind The Pink Panther 2 to be. And though it flirts with the brutal truth of heartbreak, it contains more genuine laughs than a year’s worth of Hollywood romcoms, and ends on a note of hope and feel-good warmth that had me leaving the cinema on a high.
(500) Days of Summer is released in the UK on 2nd September.