"This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know upfront: This is not a love story."
So begins (500) Days of Summer, the most honest and inventive romantic comedy since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and almost certainly the best. The boy in question is Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He studied architecture, but is currently writing greeting cards. Tom doesn't necessarily find this soul-crushing, because he's good at it and seems content; it's more like running in place. The girl is Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), who is described as being of average height, average weight, and slightly above average shoe size, but with the unusual effect of making almost every human male fall in love with her.
Of course, Tom succumbs to her charms. She is hired as his boss' assistant, and from the moment Tom sees her, he's hopeless. They both like the Smiths and can talk about J.D. Salinger stories endlessly. Tom believes he's found his soulmate. But when the whole office goes out for karaoke night, Tom discovers that Summer doesn't believe in true love and doesn't want to be anyone's girlfriend. Still, little by little, they enter into a relationship, and Tom remains convinced that he can change her mind. He can't.
True to its word, (500) Days of Summer is not a love story. Rather, it is the story of one person in love, desperately hoping the other will reciprocate his feelings, only to be confronted by the inevitable truth that she won't. Like Eternal Sunshine, it bounces around in non-linear fashion, starting on day 288 of Tom and Summer's relationship and going back and forth to show us exactly how and when it failed. One scene, you'll see Tom soaring high on the wings of love, strutting around town in a hilarious musical number, only to cut to a few hundred days later when he's depressed and stumbling through life like a zombie.
The unconventional structure employed by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, making a tremendous leap from The Pink Panther 2, is a big reason why the film is as unique and enchanting as it is. There's a real exuberance in how they and director Marc Webb, in his stellar feature debut, reinvent the romantic comedy. The movie has no problem departing from reality or breaking the fourth wall, like in the aforementioned musical number or spoofs of Fellini and Bergman films, not to mention a dozen other little things it would be unfair to reveal. The filmmakers know that the audience has seen a million similar boy meets girl tales, so they invite us along for the ride, playing with our expectations. This has got to be the most endearing film of the year.
Yet none of the quirk gets in the way of the painfully honest emotion at the movie's core. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel feel as though they were born to play these roles, so miraculous is their chemistry. Gordon-Levitt has the down-to-earth charm to capture Tom's everyman appeal (despite looking far prettier than any everyman has the right to), and I can't imagine better casting than Deschanel as the beautiful woman who effortlessly walks away with his heart. I'm sure that most of us have at points been either a Tom or a Summer. I've had my Summer before, and I was in constant amazement at how well Deschanel captured the unthinking cruelty with which Summer is capable of breaking hearts and manipulating emotions. It's not something that's conscious or calculated. It's merely the force of her personality, and sometimes that's worse.
I'm not sure if I would recommend (500) Days of Summer as a date movie. Both times I've been to see it, cute couples have dotted the theater, but I would like to be a fly on the wall during the ride home. Because even though this is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining, and inspiring films of the decade, it does not end with Tom and Summer together. I won't tell you how it does end, but it defies cliché at every turn, and provokes thoughtful conversation about fate, destiny, and whether or not the idea of soulmates is merely a facile notion that romantics helplessly cling to. Personally, romantic that I am, it's a notion I'll always cling to, but if (500) Days of Summer teaches us anything, it's that 500 days can be a long time…and also a painfully short one.