In a way, the tagline for (500) Days of Summer says it all and says nothing at all: “Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.”
Sure, it neatly captures the story of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) as they meet and date and part – to still be friends she hopes. But the movie’s many pleasures avoid such easy description. They have nothing to do with story. They have everything to do with storytelling.
I’ve always been a sucker for novels that tell the mere wisp of a story, but do so with great style, novels like Franny & Zooey and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I was a sucker for this movie as well. It very playfully tells a very simple story. I was even reminded of the writing style of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers, often.
The title may be a bit misleading. It suggests that the movie will chronicle a summer that doesn’t want to end, it being so bright, so happy and carefree. But what we find on the screen instead is a rather free-wheeling woman – like a distant cousin of her namesake Huck Finn – taking her own Tom through 500 days of ups and downs, of happiness and sadness.
The “summer” of the title doesn’t have anything to do with the seasons – although it does lead in the end to a rather nice seasonal joke. The “(500) Days” of the title though does lend the film a nifty structure. It’s a movie of constant hopping, skipping, and jumping through time with a number graphic helping us keep track. Now we’re at day 45, we’re told. Then we’re comparing that day’s happiness to the sadness of day 344. And so on.
The movie is in love with movies. We get a flirtatious series of close-ups of Summer sprawled on a bed, toying with Tom and with us, her black haircut evoking ‘60s French movie star Anna Karina at her most precocious. We get homage to that great American ‘60s movie The Graduate. But it is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that it touches most often.
Summer challenges Tom to look back and try to see more than just the happy times and the scenes have the same bittersweet flavor as Alvy replaying his relationship with Annie. And the inventive scene from Annie Hall where Alvy and Annie talk on a balcony while subtitles express their true feelings finds its creative counterpart when Tom attends a party thrown by Summer. A split screen shows us what he hopes will happen alongside what actually does happen.
There is a downside to this kinship with Annie Hall though. As with Alvy, we are restricted to Tom’s point of view. Because of this, and like with Annie, we never really get to know Summer. She’s merely an image, a fashion statement. It weakens the movie and leaves one thirsting for a sequel, perhaps less cleverly titled (500) Days of Tom.
That aside, (500) Days of Summer offers an insight that everyone who has ever dated and fallen in love only to be spurned will recognize. Frustrated, Tom asks Summer why she has broken her rule of keeping things casual now that she’s with another guy. She answers, “I realized that I was sure with him about all of the things I wasn’t sure about with you.”
Her words sound harsh here on paper. But, the way the movie says them softens them, revealing them to Tom and to us as simply the truth.