The degree to which film writers and cinephiles in general fall all over themselves with their crushes on Zooey Deschanel is borderline embarrassing, and I'm just as guilty as anyone else. But you can't help it; every time she appears on screen, she's absolutely enchanting. (500) Days of Summer trades in on that--an early sequence (with wry narration) explains "the Summer Effect," presenting hard data as to exactly how she, say, exponentially increased profits at an ice cream parlor during her time of employment there, or the average percentage of asking price she customarily pays for a rental apartment.
The Summer Effect hits Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) like a bad case of the stomach flu. He's a writer at the greeting card company where Summer has just begun working as an executive assistant, and he's taken by her right away--their first conversation in the building's elevator is one of the great moments of movie smittendom. Watching Deschanel work with Levitt, who is one of our most consistently interesting young actors (from Brick to The Lookout to Stop-Loss, I have yet to see a poor performance out of this guy), you can see immediately what was lacking in the centerpiece relationship of her previous film, Gigantic (okay, maybe I only did because I'd just watched that film earlier in the same day): chemistry. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are outstanding together, finding every nuance and emotional beat within their well-written two-scenes (many of which are wisely kept in two-shots to preserve their first-rate timing).
When Tom and Summer finally begin to hit it off, there is much philosophical discussion of love and romance, and these scenes could have used another pass; this is dialogue we've heard before, and unlike the rest of the film, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber haven't figured out how to put a new spin on them. For that matter, some of the visual jokes and music cues are a little dumber than the movie (the only evidence I could find that the script was from the writers of The Pink Panther 2), though I'll admit that the post-coital dance number did eventually win me over.
Neustadter and Weber's screenplay tells Tom and Summer's story out of order, shuffling around through their relationship, popping from heartbreak to love pangs to first kisses to last. But the jumps are never random--they're always triggered by a prop or a location or a key phrase, similar to the non-linear chronology of Annie Hall. In fact, the entire film has a neo-Woody vibe to it, from the self-reflexive hero to proto-Annie heroine to the split-screen sequence, even to the architectural tour (similar to that of Hannah and Her Sisters).
These similarities may cause some to dismiss the film as too derivative, a romantic comedy example of mixtape filmmaking. And maybe they're right, maybe the picture is too gimmicky and clever. But the visual tricks and storytelling devices also manage to shake up the story's somewhat traditional three-act structure, to make it something fresh and new, and besides, it's not all flash--there are some terrific, truthful moments here. The scene where Summer finds out that Tom likes her is just about perfect; the writing and playing is so delicate, you lean forward in your seat in anticipation. A late-night apology scene at Tom's door is beautifully played, and shot in a striking silhouette (kudos, in fact, to the entirety of Eric Steelberg's lovely, sun-kissed cinematography). And I've never seen a film so accurately reproduce the moments where you're feeling someone slipping away.
"This is a story of boy meets girl," the opening narration informs us, "but you should know up front: it's not a love story." However, the way these two tremendous performers play their last scene together, you're not so sure. There's a sweetness to (500) Days of Summer, and not just between the two of them; this is a film intoxicated by the act of creating a love story, of finding its little truths and heartaches, and that sweetness catches--I had a broad smile on my face throughout the entirety of this delightful film.
"(500) Days of Summer" debuts today on DVD and Blu-ray.