(500) Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
(500) Days of Summer begs you to love it. Its marketing campaign has been so tirelessly micromanaged, its leads are so adorable, its namechecks of generic pseudo-outré touchstones (Belle and Sebastian, The Smiths, The Seventh Seal, turn-of-the-century architecture) so artfully placed, that its many gimmicks actually wind up having the opposite effect. Charm is a subtle element, one best left to good actors and sharp dialogue rather than sly marketers.
This is all too bad, because Summer is a thoroughly decent film when it isn’t assaulting you with its twee signifiers. Much if that can be chalked up to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has long been one of Hollywood’s most versatile young actors. He stars here as Tom, a greeting-card writer who falls instantly in love with the beguiling-but-distant Summer (Zooey Deschanel, in the role we’ve all known she’d eventually be cast in) when she arrives at work as his boss’ assistant. They quickly form an intimate bond, but Summer makes it clear early and often that she does not believe in true love – a warning that the extremely sentimental Tom fails to take to heart, eventually leading to a series of crushing disappointments.
If Webb and his screenwriters (Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, whose only other credit is for…The Pink Panther 2?) had focused simply on the emotional core of their story, they might have come up with a special film. Unrequited love, as a concept, is rarely seen as the focal point in Hollywood films, and it’s nice to see it getting a relatively mature treatment, and Summer‘s best scenes even come close to evoking the wistful pleasures of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. On the other hand, there’s at least half an hour of unalloyed bullshit threatening to derail the film at any moment, from the incredibly overbearing narration that crops up every so often, to the obnoxious appearances by Chloe Moretz as a ludicrously prescient child, to the opening scenes, which shamelessly rip off Amelie. Some of Webb’s tricks actually work, mind you – the split-screen, “expectation vs. reality” sequence is heartbreaking, and the Hall and Oates-powered dance sequence is an appropriate manifestation for Tom’s brief period of joy – but most fall flat. It’s as clear-cut a case of the pitfalls of music video directors as we’ve seen in ages.
On the other hand, Gordon-Levitt does such a fine job conveying both youthful ebullience and shattered innocence that you can’t entirely root against the film. Deschanel’s no slouch, either – in the hands of a less likable screen presence, Summer would inspire deep loathing for what she (somewhat inadvertently) puts Tom through, but Deschanel sells Summer’s quiet turmoil nicely, never letting her become an antagonist. It helps that her plot arc is refreshingly unfussy and – that rarest of things in a Hollywood romance – genuinely plausible. Mention should also be made of Criminal Minds star Matthew Gray Gubler, who, as Tom’s best friend and roommate, brings a nice grounding to scenes otherwise potentially overflowing with angst. Shame, then, that he, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel could so easily have been the subjects of a truly great film, and are instead those of a sometimes-great one.