The LA Times review of 500 Days of Summer starts by calling it “an original romantic comedy.” This is not true. For one thing, it’s a “romantic comedy” only if you can call Annie Hall a “romantic comedy”: it’s not as much about celebrating a relationship as it is about what we can learn from a failed relationship. And secondly, it’s tough to point out “originality” as its strongest suit when you can’t talk about the movie without mentioning Annie Hall.
But that’s not a bad thing. After all, Annie Hall is such a great movie that even lesser imitations can be great, even if only for their time. 500 Days of Summer doesn’t hide any of its influences — it references The Graduate multiple times, even including the closing scene — and manages to feel like a celebration of those influences, instead of being purely derivative. It’s as personal and confessional as a Woody Allen movie, without feeling as narcissistic. It’s as ambiguous as a Mike Nichols movie, without feeling as bleak, or as if you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you by the ending.
It’s also got every romantic comedy cliche you can think of, except for a scene with people jumping on beds singing into hairbrushes (and I think there might’ve been one of those that I missed). But here, they’re played well enough that they actually work: the comic relief pals are used sparingly and feel natural, the chance-encounter-at-a-wedding is underplayed enough to feel realistic, and the scenes showing the highs and lows of the relationship are cleverly mashed up and shown out of sequence. The result is that you’re not thinking “I’ve seen this before” (unless you’re extremely cynical), you’re putting together familiar pieces to tell a larger story.
And it’s not a “chick flick,” since it’s very much told from the guy’s perspective. Granted, it’s a particularly sensitive, self-absorbed, and hopelessly-romantic guy, so make of that whatever you want. I’m a huge fan of “How I Met Your Mother,” which makes me think I’m squarely in the target demographic for this movie. Here it’s the guy whose heart is broken by an emotionally distant (and seemingly manipulative) woman: again not a completely original concept, but still nice to see movies acknowledging that relationships have two people involved; it’s not just a hero and a target. One of the best lines is when Summer compares the relationship to Sid & Nancy and has to point out that she’s Sid, a joke they reinforced with a promotional video.
As it’s told from the guy’s perspective, Zooey Deschanel is perfectly cast, to the point that you have to wonder if the entire movie were built around her. She has a power over men that can’t adequately be explained; the movie even has an entire sequence about it. (And yes, includes a scene of her singing, which frankly just seems like overkill, since we’re already enamored). So it’s perfectly understandable that a guy would fall for her and fall hard; we accept it without a second thought. But unlike, for example, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she’s not relegated to the thankless role of “the manipulative bitch.” You can see how she made her intentions clear, as best as she understood them herself, and it was just a case of a guy projecting his image of a fantasy girl on someone instead of paying attention to the reality.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is well-cast, too: good-looking enough that he doesn’t come across as too annoying or pathetic (and when he does, his little sister calls him a “pussy”); but not so much that the average-looking people in the audience can no longer relate. My favorite part of the entire movie is when he launches into a genuinely gleeful musical number (set to “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall & Oates) and he checks himself out in a car window reflection. I won’t spoil it, but if you’re a guy who hasn’t seen himself like that in a moment of feeling-good-about-yourself, you’re either lying or you’re much younger than I am.
And speaking of being much younger than I am: there is a faint sense of artificiality about the whole movie, not enough to ruin it, but just enough to keep it from being transcendent. Part of it is that it keeps threatening to cross the line into indie-movie preciousness, never going quite over but driving the whole way with its blinkers on. (But I was watching it in a Sundance theater, which might’ve had something to do with that). The other part is that it felt like people in their 20s delivering lines written by people in their 30s. It’s entirely possible I’m just out of touch, and people in their 20s in Los Angeles really are into The Graduate and Annie Hall and sing Pixies songs at karaoke. But even if the details aren’t genuine, the overall message of the movie is.