I’ve long held that the best single-line summary of every unsuccessful relationship ever occurs in High Fidelity (one of the very best “relationship” movies ever). Upon discovering that his girlfriend, Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), has begun sleeping with somebody else, Rob (John Cusack) stands outside her apartment in the pouring rain and shouts up towards the window:
“Charlie, you fucking bitch—let’s work it out!”
In (500) Days of Summer, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spends much of the movie acting out a very similar sentiment towards his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). He’s simultaneously pissed at her for breaking up with him and yet still very much in love with her. The movie documents the course of their entire relationship, from day 1, when he meets her, to day 500, when he finally gets over her after a long and painful breakup process. The story is told out of order, with each section introduced by a card specifying on which of the 500 days of their relationship it’s taking place.
It’s a fun storytelling device, and it works well, particularly in highlighting the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum between which Tom oscillates. On day 29, he’s blissful and dancing on his way to work, but then the next scene is day 290, and she’s just told him she doesn’t think they should see each other anymore. Or maybe it’s the other way around. The order here isn’t as important as the pendulum-like swings, and the style lends itself well to emphasizing the extremes. One moment he’s calling her a bitch, the next he’s imploring her to work things out.
First-time director Marc Webb employs other stylistic tricks as well, the net result being a fun film that maintains a light and playful tone throughout, despite the fact that its primary emotion is heartbreak. Along with the non-chronological storytelling and the titles explicitly spelling out which point in the story we’re at as it progresses, there are split screens and other framing tricks, a humorous musical number, and a creatively clever post-breakup scene that /Film called “must watch”:
Although it may seem like I’m giving away too much by revealing that Summer breaks up with Tom, the end of their relationship does not play the same storytelling role it does in your typical romantic comedy (usually as the second-act climax, which is then resolved in “heartwarming” fashion by the end of the third act). In fact, the breakup itself is one of the earliest scenes in the film. The focus instead is on how Tom attempts to deal with it as he reflects upon the entire course of their relationship. The narrator even informs us that we “should know up front, this is not a love story.”
Said narration is an example of the screenplay going a bit overboard in pulling out every trick in the bag, and it’s one that doesn’t quite work as well as some of the others. Having a narrator is fine for the trailer, but in the film itself it feels a little cumbersome and totally unnecessary. To use the above clip as a further example, the subtitles designating “Expectations” and “Reality” should be sufficient for the audience to understand what’s being depicted, but the script feels the need to make use of an expository introduction to that scene, with the narrator blatantly explaining what we’re about to see. As opposed to a film like Little Children, which used narration as a means of helping to solidify its “fairy tale for adults” tone, here it’s an annoying crutch used by first-time screenwriters who don’t seem to have sufficient faith in their characters to convey the story on their own.
These characters are able to tell their story through their actions alone, though, thanks to good performances from the two leads. The best thing that can be said about a movie like this is that it makes you believe you’re watching real people in real situations, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel certainly pull that off. There’s a bit of an overabundance of all-too-hip pop-culture references, but they’re effective at establishing Tom and Summer as true-to-life characters. One such reference even works as a subtle bit of foreshadowing: of course a chick who you’re introduced to via her love of mopey music like The Smiths is going to end up breaking your heart. The supporting cast also feels very real, particularly Tom’s friends, whose ruthless ribbing knows no bounds (most noteworthy is Geoffrey Arend, who plays the role of the brutally honest sidekick). There’s also a nice beat involving karaoke that serves the same function as the bridge scenes in Adventureland to which I was just recently referring, and it’s almost as resonant—not to mention almost as uncomfortable.
I don’t know why the title of (500) Days of Summer has the number 500 in parentheses, other than it being another example of a slightly over-the-top stylistic choice. These choices tend, more often than not, to be clever and welcome ones, adding up to a refreshing take on a sometimes oversaturated genre, and providing a fresh twist on it in the process.