"You should know upfront: This is not a love story," (500) Days of Summer's omniscient narrator warns us. The film then lays out the pop-cultural obsessions and core-rocking events that define the He and She of this un-love story, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). When he was young, Tom tucked into the Smiths and watched The Graduate on constant loop, while Summer, marked by her parents' divorce, cut off her prized long locks and realized that the shear didn't sting like she thought it would.
It may sound reductive - character established in easy bullet points - but it's also an instructive and artful manual on their individual romantic philosophies. Opposing philosophies, it turns out: 500 is, after all, a finite number, and it marks the sum total days of Tom and Summer's coupling, of which we are witness to a smattering, told in a teasing, fractured timeline.
If the title and the narrator's pronouncement don't tender enough advance notice, Summer warns as much on her first quasi-date with Tom, when she scoffs skeptically at love, or at least the moony, struck-dumb kind that the sentimentalist Tom clings to. He's a failed architect tapping out greeting-card copy; she's the boss' new assistant, smirking at Tom's sappy turns at bar mitzvah Hallmarks.
After eyeing each other across the office, they meet cute in the elevator, as Tom blasts the Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" on his headphones. When Summer sings along - "if a double decker bus/ crashes into us/ to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die" - his head nearly spins on its axis. Soon enough, Tom and Summer are off to the races, thumbing through record shops together and playing house at IKEA.
(500) Days is a superior entry in the emerging canon of romantic comedy that also numbers All the Real Girls and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. These are love stories that play with time and form and shoegazing in a still-new stew of jadedness and wild romanticism. (500) Days hits a sweet spot, but not without its sour notes. The clever timeline cutups distract from some frustratingly conventional add-ons, as in the film's clunky entrée and exit and the scripted-in-its-sleep character of Tom's snappy preteen sister.
But more troubling is the depiction of Summer. Deschanel does a lot with a character that is painted as either mystical or cruel. Given the fetishistic scrutiny she's subjected to, Deschanel plays her part beautifully. But the real unkindness here is in the film's dismissal of Summer; any questions over bias are blasted in the film's "dedication" to the girl that inspired the piece, that "bitch."
Then again, we were told upfront: This is not a love story. More to the point, this is a story about a boy who fell in love with a girl and eventually fell to earth. That the boy is played by the sweetly sincere and perfectly cast Gordon-Levitt helps to wash down the unevenness.
(500) Days is a deeply funny, seductive and surprisingly honest dramatization of the ways we snooker ourselves into incompatible love. It may be a one-sided show, but it's proof that - to crib once again from the Smiths - if pretty girls don't exactly make graves, they certainly inspire broken-hearted boys to make marvelous monuments to them.