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Dustin Putman

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(500) Days of Summer  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Marc Webb.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler, Chloe Grace Moretz, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly, Patricia Belcher, Rachel Boston, Maile Flanagan, Yvette Nicole Brown.
2009 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual material and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 30, 2009.
Movie romances typically play out in exactly the same fashion: two people, usually total opposites, spend the whole film sparring, then flirting, then falling out with each other over a misunderstanding, then getting back together and professing their love for one another just as the music swells and the camera rises. None of them tell the viewers what happens next, despite our frequent suspicions that the two would-be soul mates in question will be broken up ten minutes after the end credits roll. The part-joyous, part-wistful "(500) Days of Summer" sets out to change all that, starting with its admission right from the beginning that it is "not a love story." First-time director Marc Webb aims to go deeper with the questions he poses to the audience. What happens, for example, when one person falls in love with another, only for those feelings to not quite be reciprocated at the same level? And what happens when the initial emotions that go along with a fresh, new, exciting relationship begin to sour and decompose around the edges? What might it feel like to spend the better part of a year wholly giving yourself to someone, only to learn too late to stop yourself from getting your heart broken that it is not to be? Surely, a great many people can relate to this more than the commonplace formulaic, ultimately happy-go-lucky cinematic courtship, and it is this accuracy that lifts "(500) Days of Summer" above more familiar romantic fare.

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an aspiring architect who has become too settled in his comfy office job at a Manhattan-based greeting cards company. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), his boss' new assistant, Tom is struck by her beauty and assumes there is no chance she'd go for him. Things start to look up when, riding the elevator together, Summer remarks that she loves The Smiths, the band Tom is listening to through his earphones. Despite Summer's later claim that she isn't interested in a boyfriend and doesn't believe true love exists, there are undeniable sparks between them that, sure enough, lead to a newfound intimate relationship. They're the best of friends and the best of lovers, and Tom is left on a high from meeting the one girl who has never made him feel quite this way before. What one person chooses to see may not always be how it really is, though. As the days tick by and truths rise to the surface, Tom must learn this the hard way.

"(500) Days of Summer" was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose only other credit happens to be 2009's insufferable "The Pink Panther 2." Any guesses on which project was penned from their heart, and which was a work-for-hire money grab? The opening ten minutes of "(500) Days of Summer" struggle to find their footing as the viewer attempts to acquaint himself or herself with an unorthodox, non-linear storytelling approach that relies on the day number to inform us on where we are in the timeline. It is not nearly as confusing as it sounds, the majority of the narrative told in chronological order but occasionally flashing forward to hint at the darker days to come. With the exception of two unnecessary stock friend characters, McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) and Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), and a wise-beyond-her-years preteen sister, Rachel (Chloe Grace Moretz), who are on hand for the sole reason to give Tom people to confide in, the film smartly focuses on Tom and Summer and leaves the threadbare romantic comedy blueprint at the door.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2007's "The Lookout") and Zooey Deschanel (2008's "Yes Man") are perfect together, exuberant and heartbreaking in equal measure as Tom and Summer. Both characters are true originals precisely because they are so identifiable as real people, each with their own ideas, opinions, flaws, disappointments, and dreams. Their time spent together is portrayed by director Marc Webb with a sense of nostalgia that sneaks up on the viewer, even when they are doing such relatively mundane things as eating dinner, going to the movies, shopping at IKEA, visiting museums, or sitting in a park. It is these small, seemingly insignificant moments that often make the fondest memories, and when they are recalled after things are different between Tom and Summer it has a profound impact.

A sequence where they watch "The Graduate" and the events of the movie collide with Summer's own doubts and confusion is mournfully beautiful, speaking so much about the human condition and the effect art can have on our lives. Likewise, after having broken up and briefly reconnected at a co-worker's wedding, a scene where Tom accepts Summer's invitation to a party she is throwing and, via a split screen, the reality of how it goes stands at telling contrast with his overly hopeful expectations is quietly devastating. A late scene set in the park Tom used to take Summer to is alternately sad, uplifting, and refreshing, the characters written as intelligent enough to hold a serious, mature conversation about what went wrong between them, and how they have since grown and changed into people they never imagined they would become. It is such a terrific moment—one of many—that the viewer wishes the brief, non-cataclysmic interludes into convention, like the scenes with Tom's over-caffeinated friends and artificially written sister, could have been excised.

The morning after consummating their still-young relationship, Tom breaks out during his journey to work into a song-and-dance number to Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams (Come True)." It is magical to behold, equating through a flight of fancy what it is like to be hopelessly smitten and in love. That feeling unfortunately doesn't last, but "(500) Days of Summer" makes it clear that Tom will have many more days where he feels like he's walking on air with the world at his fingertips. You take the bad with the good because that's life and, really, what other choice have you got? "(500) Days of Summer" is funny, poignant and uncommonly perceptive, growing all the more so the longer one thinks about it.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman