Order in the courtship
(500) Days of Summer
Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber set the tone of (500) Days of Summer even before it starts. In white letters on a black background, we read: “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” It’s the standard disclaimer, dignified and formal. But they can’t help adding, “Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”
The laugh that opening gets is the first of the movie’s many surprises. Somehow, that petulant inscription enlists us on the side of the filmmakers. Doesn’t everybody have a Jenny (or Joey) Beckman in their past? With that unexpected little flourish, Neustadter, Weber and director Marc Webb nudge us into acknowledging that on some level, the story of their young hero Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) may be our own. Or at least, one of our stories—one that we don’t think about much anymore.
The movie has, as I said, many surprises. One of them is how really unsurprising it is. That’s not to say that it’s predictable. But it tells us where it’s going early on, when an omniscient, borderline-pompous narrator says, “You should know right off that this isn’t a love story.” Indeed, the movie begins at the end of the romance between Tom, a greeting-card writer with an unshakeable faith in true love, and the woman he considers his soul-mate-at-first-sight, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). “I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” Summer tells a stunned Tom as they sit in a noisy coffee shop. “All we ever do is argue.” “Bullshit!” he barks.
We know how things are going to end because, as we come into the story, they already have. What we don’t know is the beginning and the middle, and the movie gives them to us in seemingly random chapters, identified by headings indicating which of the 500 days we’re about to see. We hop randomly from “Day (398)” to “Day (1)” to “Day (154)” and back to “Day (10).”
But the structure isn’t as random as it seems. It places the movie’s “now” in a sort of limbo, with Tom free-associating back and forth over the 500 days of the title—the meeting, the chitchat flirtation, the semi-serious fling, the sudden quarrel, the making up, the quarreling again and so on.
The movie’s numbers give us a general idea of where each following day will fall in the continuum, and we assemble our own sense of the story’s arc. While Tom is examining moments for signs of how it all went wrong, trying to figure out how Summer could be the One for him without him being it for her, we start to get ahead of him, hoping he’ll find a way to move beyond the gloom.
At the same time, we can sympathize. In one scene, a split screen juxtaposes Tom’s fantasy of a tender reconciliation at a party with the dispiriting reality of how the party really shakes out. As fantasy and reality diverge more and more, dashing Tom’s hopes, the scene is funny just because it gives us that agonizing feeling of “been there, dreamed that, got shot down.”
The movie anticipates and undercuts our romantic-comedy expectations; this isn’t the lazy formula of something like The Proposal or My Life in Ruins. (Who’d have thought that the writers of the ghastly Pink Panther 2 would have a script like this in them as well, and in the same year?) It twists the knife at unexpected moments, and always to comic effect—a fantasy musical number with Tom, fresh from his first night of sex with Summer, dancing in the street to the tune of Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True,” cuts abruptly (and hilariously) to our hero in post-breakup misery.
Summer has the rueful wit of the script and Webb’s sprightly, inventive direction, but it’s not-so-secret weapons are Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel. Both have been toiling in the Hollywood vineyards for years without quite attaining the true stardom their talents plainly deserve. If there’s any justice, this should put them both over the top.
And the movie has a kind of audacity, too: It actually dares to invite comparison with Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s definitive masterpiece of bittersweet mismatched romance. And having invited the comparison, it manages, against all odds, to stand up under it.