There is a moment in every relationship where you arrive at this point where you "know" if this is going to be "the one"- That is, unless this moment never arrives.
"500 Days of Summer," the debut feature film from director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, is a romantic comedy that evolves around these moments of knowing, not knowing, thinking you know and not really knowing for sure that you know what you think you know.
Who really understands this thing we call love?
Certainly not Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "Brick" and "Mysterious Skin") and Summer (Zooey Deschanel, "Elf" and Almost Famous").
Tom believes in love, or at least in the greeting card version of love. Of course, that makes sense as Tom is a greeting card writer who spends his days writing soundbyte sentimentality to put words to those things many of us can't communicate. He wants to be an architect, but has seemingly blocked himself into this safe and relatively drama free professional existence.
Summer, on the other hand, is either the walking wounded or simply mortally jaded in all matters of the heart. She meets Tom. She likes Tom. She appreciates Tom but, she states very up front, she will not become Tom's girlfriend or, for that matter, any other label that we like to use to define our relationships.
Because this is a romantic comedy, we know that Tom and Summer will be attracted to one another, will resist that attraction, will finally give into that attraction, will seem perfect with one another and, finally, will not be perfect with one another.
We expect that "500 Days of Summer" will unfold like every other romantic comedy that Hollywood gives us...somehow, someway Tom and Summer will weave their way through their many obstacles and will end up happily ever after.
Hollywood loves happily ever after.
Yet in "500 Days of Summer," one of the most delightful and intelligent romantic comedies since "Love Actually," it becomes obvious rather early on that director Marc Webb is opting for authenticity over Hollywood formula and the final result is a film that somehow manages to seamlessly blend hopefulness with heartbreak and the magic of love with its mundane realities.
Much of this is accomplished in a way that some will find maddening, yet it unfolds perfectly within the context of the lives of Tom and Summer. "500 Days of Summer" flashes back and forth throughout the film between the early days of the awkward first meetings, the fumbling days of getting to know one another, the celebratory days of transcendent love, the bitter break-up, the unfathomable grief and, yes, the resolution that is happy and satisfying and simply feels right for everyone involved.
Isn't this what we all do with love? We remember the good, the bad, the challenging, the moments that defined the relationship and the moments that, perhaps, defined its breakdown? We don't recall our lost loves in chronological order, but by the moments that touched us most deeply and shaped our souls.
This is exactly what unfolds in "500 Days of Summer," a relationship of two people who seem so delightfully perfect for one another and, yet, a relationship in which that moment of "knowing" simply never arrives for one of the two involved.
The brilliance of Neustadter and Weber's script is that through the entire life cycle of the relationship, the blame game is avoided and, quite simply, two people are companioned falling in like, maybe falling in love, caring for one another and coming to terms with everything the relationship is, is not and may never be. The dialogue is rich, authentic, honest and genuine and magnificently brought to life by the entire cast.
For those of you who know Joseph Gordon-Levitt only for his longtime role as the youngest cast member on televisions "Third Rock From the Sun," his performance here will be a delightful revelation. For those who've followed his growing career in indie flicks over the past five years or so, his performance in "500 Days of Summer" will leave you giddy with joy. With few exceptions, his disappointing turn in "Havoc" being the primary example, Gordon-Levitt has been building a stunning repertoire of diverse performances in such films as the magnificent and underrated "Mysterious Skin," the far too underseen "Latter Days" and the critically acclaimed "Brick." Here, Gordon-Levitt marvelously intertwines both the innocence and hopefulness of Tom with his increasing despair as the reality of his relationship with Summer does not meet his expectation. In films such as "Mysterious Skin," Gordon-Levitt has proven he's an actor willing to take chances and in "500 Days of Summer," he surrenders himself to the full breadth of Tom's relationship in such a way that it is simply awesome to behold.
The same is very much true for Zooey Deschanel, quite literally the perfect actress to portray Summer. Summer could easily have been turned into not much more than a beautiful yet jaded and bitchy young woman, but Deschanel crawls inside Summer's soul and brings her to life in such a way that it is impossible to not identify with Tom's complete adoration for her. For all her aggravating quirkiness, Summer is beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, honest and true. Deschanel has proven time and again quite skilled at portraying vibrant and spirited women filled to the brim with life. In "500 Days of Summer," Deschanel radiates a beauty and tenderness that challenges the audience to not accept the stereotype of her even though much of what we are seeing in the film comes from Tom's perspective. Deschanel's performance is richly realized, funny and heartfelt.
Quite literally, every frame of "500 Days of Summer" is beautiful and awesome to behold, with scenes that unfold like a Bergmanesque remembrance all the way to an unexpected and yet spot-on magical dance sequence that magnificently evokes the feelings we all feel when we believe, at least for a fleeting moment, that we have found "the one."
There are films that come along ever so often that prove to be time capsules of the human experience- "500 Days of Summer" is such a film. With tenderness and humanity, joy and pain, hope and heartbreak and everything in between, "500 Days of Summer" bursts to life and becomes far and away the best romantic comedy of 2009 and, perhaps, in recent years.
"500 Days of Summer" was the opening night film of the 2009 Indianapolis International Film Festival. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 17, 2009 and will be gradually released across the country.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic