“(500) Days of Summer,” the would-be-romantic, too-sad-to-be-a-comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, starts with a narrated warning that this is not a love story. It’s not so we’ll smirk and say, “Isn’t that cute — a love story that says it’s not a love story.” It’s meant as a literal warning, so don’t say it didn’t warn you.
Deep-voiced narrator Richard McGonagle steps in with other omniscient bits here and there, but ultimately this is a movie of two perspectives.
Summer tells Tom up front that she doesn’t believe in love and she’s not looking for anything serious — that seems like a sad perspective on life (albeit logical, admittedly). Tom is in love with Summer practically at first sight, and as his feelings grow deeper, the lack of returned love becomes harder to bear. Tom’s emotional perspective leads to sadness (admittedly, he’s bringing it upon himself, but how can he help it? That’s how he’s wired.).
That’s not to say that Tom and Summer don’t experience happiness in their relationship. They do (There’s a funny, happy dance sequence where Tom pictures himself as Harrison Ford circa 1977). But “(500) Days of Summer” is emotionally true, so it knows that happiness and sadness can happen at the same time.
The movie — as all audience members will realize right away — was written by guys (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) and directed by a guy (Marc Webb). I might be wrong, but I don’t think a woman can totally understand what it’s like to fall for a pretty, nice, sad girl; to crave the same level of affection that you feel for her; and to not get it in return — and to make matters worse, to never understand why that is. Why can she be friends with you, be happy spending time with you, find you attractive, and not see you as “the one?”
(On a side note, the existence of women like Summer is why I don’t believe in God — at least not an all-loving God. Why would an all-loving God present you with someone to love and then make it impossible to get love in return? Discuss.)
The simple explanation to the Tom-Summer not-quite-romance is that men are emotional and women are logical. (I know that’s the opposite of the stereotype, but at the same, I think we all know that stereotype is backwards.)
As men, we know women’s brains are different from ours, but we don’t exactly get HOW they are different. “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate,” explains Tom’s little sis (this film’s all-knowing sage). But as guys, we don’t understand the flip side of that. OK, fine, liking the same music, books and films — and liking how each other looks and acts — isn’t what it’s all about. But then what is? — that’s what we don’t get.
“(500) Days” gets that we don’t get that, and the script is helped toward its emotional truth with great lead performances — Gordon-Levitt is the Everyguy and Deschanel is the classic pretty, nice girl who’s just a little bit cold — I love her and hate her for portraying that so well.
Also, the filmmakers use clever tactics, such as when Tom attends Summer’s birthday party. On the left side of the screen is Tom’s Expectations (Summer gives all her attention to him, and they share pleasant conversation and smiles). On the right side is Reality (Summer is friendly but distant — a pat on the shoulder instead of a hug as thanks for a gift; and as hostess, she spends equal time with all of her guests).
And the Expectations side is totally silent while the sound comes from the Reality side. The sequence says: Dreams are a quiet, pleasant feeling; the real world is noise, some of which is pleasant, but a lot of which causes pain.
Ultimately, the film suggests that there’s nothing to “get,” because notions like soul mates and love are about as real as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the gods of humanity’s religions. And while those notions give us comfort at first, maybe we’d be better off moving beyond them.
Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity” posed the timeless question: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” “(500) Days” asks it again, although instead of a voiceover, Tom goes on a rant during a staff meeting at his job as a greeting card designer.
“There’s enough bullshit in the world without me adding to it,” he says as a parting shot. And he’s right, surely. (And just as surely, I’ll continue to send cards to people. And to listen to sad pop music. I act all superior because I’m free of religious superstition, and yet I’m obsessed with sad pop culture. I have an old Doves album playing in my apartment as I write this. And after I’m done, I’ll probably watch the “Booklovers” episode of “Once and Again” or the pilot episode of “Dead Like Me.” Damn you, sad pop culture. Damn you to hell.)
I kind of loved “(500) Days of Summer.” Oh, I kind of hated it, too. I’m about 50-50 on that score. But it’ll certainly be in my top 10 at the end of the year.