There are so many ways in which “(500) Days of Summer” seems too clever for its own good: It’s packed with oddball and not-so-odd pop-culture references (at one point a character struggles to remember how the “Knight Rider” theme song goes); the banter between the characters is breezy but often in a meticulous, self-conscious way; and, perhaps worst of all, we’re guided through this modern-day saga of longing and heartbreak by a too-helpful narrator. “You should know upfront,” he tells us upfront. “This is not a love story.” Whatever happened to trusting an audience to get the point for itself, without an accompanying instruction manual?
But everything that’s wrong, on the surface, with “(500) Days of Summer” pales in light of everything that’s going on beneath its surface. The movie was a Sundance favorite last January, which is certainly enough to strike fear in the hearts of stalwart men and women who are still mourning the hours they lost to twinkly-quirky little numbers like “Hamlet 2″ and “Little Miss Sunshine.” But there’s an air of mournfulness, of bewilderment at the ways love can do us wrong, that rescues “(500) Days of Summer” from indie cuteness. If the movie — which was directed by newcomer Marc Webb and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — is at times overly calculated, in the end it manages to hit the core of what it means to have every romantic hope dashed. It also pinpoints the exact moment when those hopes mysteriously start to rebuild themselves, seemingly of their own accord, usually at the very moment we just can’t live with our own gloom anymore.
“(500) Days of Summer” begins at the end of a relationship, doubles back to the precarious, fluttery days at the beginning, and traverses some of the territory in between. But most of it deals with the tragicomedy of the post-breakup phase, the period during which the spurned lover is left trying to figure out what the hell just happened, and why. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Tom, a would-be architect who works as a writer for a Los Angeles greeting-card company. Zooey Deschanel is Summer, a young woman who’s just taken a job as an assistant to the head of the company (played by Clark Gregg). Summer, with her ’60s-mod bangs and Keane-painting eyes, bowls Tom over almost immediately. But she’s not easily won over; she’s also preternaturally self-possessed, to the point of being almost impossible to read. (Even when their romance seems to be going well, Tom reflects on how hard it is to get a sense of what she’s thinking.) But the two of them like much of the same music — early on, they tentatively bond over their love for the Smiths — and one evening, after work, they go out to a karaoke bar with some colleagues. She coos along to Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town”; he blasts through the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man.” Before long, they’re almost going out. Then they’re fantasy-shopping at IKEA, turning the store into their honeymoon home. Here and there, Summer spills a few of her secrets, but she can’t bring herself to open up fully to Tom. He believes in romance and wants to commit; she distrusts the idea of love and believes in keeping her independence. Eventually, they find themselves bickering over their diner pancakes: “All we do is argue,” she tells him. “Bullshit!” he shoots back. And not long after that, Tom is mooning around his apartment, and the office; she’s split, and he’s wondering how he can get her back, even after he gets one of those dreaded, chipper “Glad you’re ready to be friends!” e-mails.
Of course, none of this happens in sequence, a storytelling technique that accurately mirrors the post-breakup postmortem, that period when you’re trying to piece together what happened when, and what you might have done differently to change the outcome. Webb and the screenwriters approach the subject of heartbreak with a seemingly paradoxical freewheeling exuberance, and somehow, the tactic works. They draw inspiration from myriad sources — both Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard figure in their crazy-quilt mosaic. At one point Tom, sitting with Summer in a bar, looks around him and grumbles: “Girls in 1964 knew how to dress.” He then goes on to praise her own Brigitte Bardot-meets-Gidget style, but as appreciative as he is, we get the sense — as she does — that he’s not really seeing her. “(500) Days of Summer” isn’t about a poor, put-upon nice guy who’s cruelly dumped by a girl. It’s about the mistakes anyone can make, innocently, when we’re trying to find the right person to love.
Deschanel plays Summer as something of a mystery girl. Only at the end do we get some clues into what she’s thinking, and even then, we’re not quite sure we’ve got it. But the performance is still a pleasure to watch: Deschanel brings the right amount of deadpan bubbliness to the role.
But Gordon-Levitt may be the real key to what makes “(500) Days of Summer” work. Gordon-Levitt, a former child actor, has given fine performances in movies like Greg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin” and Scott Frank’s “The Lookout.” He’s a terrific, understated actor, but an unusual one: When I first sit down to watch a Gordon-Levitt performance, I’m never sure I’m going to like it. He has an opaqueness about him, as if he’s resisting letting us inside.
But I almost always find myself warming to him, and in “(500) Days of Summer,” he works his usual spell in subtle gradations. As Tom watches his new crush winsomely toodle her way through “Sugar Town” (Deschanel has a lovely, silvery voice, as she’s already proved on “Volume One,” the 2008 album she made with M. Ward under the name She & Him), his face is transformed by open and unadulterated joy. He’s not just falling in love with her; he’s getting a real kick out of her, taking pleasure in her flirty stylishness — and at the beginning, that’s enough. In another scene, after he’s slept with her for the first time, he bursts forth from his apartment building and begins skipping — first figuratively, then literally — his way to work. He high-fives strangers in the park; when he grins at them, they smile back. And suddenly, he’s actually dancing, accompanied by that chorus of friendly faces, because Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” has welled up on the soundtrack. Gordon-Levitt and company turn their corner of L.A. into a mini-homage to “An American in Paris,” temporarily creating a universe where it’s perfectly OK to dance in the street out of sheer happiness. Gordon-Levitt can dance, all right (and his singing, during that karaoke scene, is pretty good too). And in the way he moves, leaping and scissor-kicking to that ridiculously catchy song, he tells us all we need to know about Tom’s capacity for happiness, and his potential vulnerability. It’s too bad Tom doesn’t, in the end, get this particular girl. But at least he’s got rhythm. For the moment, who could ask for anything more?