They say you never forget your first love. But maybe it more true that you never forget your ultimate heartbreak. 500 Days of Summer is not a love story, it insists. It’s boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses his mind. Anyone who has ever been dumped in a heartless, agonizingly casual way will recognize the humiliation, the desperation, the unending expectations.
Director Marc Webb, working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, does not really come up with a new story so much as he’s found a new way to tell it – by freeing the constraints and letting the ideas fly. That means if the story calls for a sudden burst of Bollywood-type dancing with an animated bird fluttering about, so be it. Sometimes it is a documentary, then it’s a Bergman film. These jokes aren’t so inside that only a cinephile would get/appreciate them, but they are smart enough and refreshing enough to make 500 Days one of the delights of the summer so far.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the sad sack Tom Hansen who believes in true love, who falls madly for the doe-eyed girl who’s just starting working in his office. Zooey Deschanel plays Summer Finn, the muse, the unattainable icon of Tom’s worship. He puts her so far up on a pedestal before they ever exchange any words that when they finally do come together Summer has a hard time fitting into his dream.
Summer is self-possessed, a little odd, but certainly not easily understood. When the movie comes to a graceful close, only then do we realize that we’ve been dealing with an unreliable narrator; we see her the way he saw her. We believe her to be as he thought she was. Mike Nichols’ The Graduate plays a key role in all of this — Benjamin kind of latches onto Elaine and she to him. They both run away from their lives but to what?
The freefall at the end of that film is so much how we view cinematic love – just take a leap of faith and it will all work out. But what if it doesn’t? What if Tom was trapped in a movie of his own making and thus when the happily ever after never happened his entire world fell apart; it wasn’t just that she wasn’t that into him, it was that everything he knew and believed suddenly didn’t exist.
The film is probably a lot deeper than it appears at first pass. It is a salve for those out there who still can’t get over their broken heart. The message here is that we live, we love, we learn. We move on. The movie gets all of the dirty stuff about love so right. If it falters at all it’s because we bring our own great expectations of happily ever after to it. But that still shouldn’t mean “boy gets girl.” “Boy gets a life” is a better way of putting it.
So, no, it isn’t a love story. But what it says about love is everything.