When Harry Met Sadness: <em>(500) Days of Summer</em> Reconsiders American Romantic Comedy

is not the smartest, funniest or sleekest movie to which Fox didn't invite me this year -- but in its pretentious mope-rock way it is ambitious, thoughtful and fulfilling.
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Matters of the heart may actively invite fierce overgeneralizations, and sometimes the blanket statements hold up well under scrutiny -- but nonetheless, I advise readers of this review to note that I am writing it as part of a calm catharsis of two decades of adult life which I would define as Total Romantic Failure. Also: Professional reviews have grown terribly stale in recent years (or is that the stench wafting from the corpses of disemboweled critics?) and thus I'd rather say it like I see it than play it safe (and boring) as many choose to do -- but just you bring a pinch of salt.

Meaninglessness incarnate.
(photo: Fox Searchlight)

(500) Days of Summer is not the smartest, funniest or sleekest movie to which Fox didn't invite me this year -- but in its pretentious mope-rock way it is ambitious, thoughtful and fulfilling. And it's certainly relatable. For I have striven long, hard and generously to love in L.A. -- and really, unless you're a shallow, soulless, trade-'em-up idiot (and/or rich), anything approaching "love" here ultimately mega-sucks and becomes terrible torture. Meanwhile, although I acknowledge that it's more attractive to review abysmal big-budget reboots or heavily-promoted art-house movies about how life sucks for some Arab women (that's hardly news), I found (500) Days refreshing because it is in many ways about how life has sucked for me -- again, for twenty years -- and I rather enjoyed viewing it not only because I found it (mostly) familiar (like some dour variation on the also-L.A.-centric I Love You, Man), but also because its protagonist, like Norman Bates or Luke Skywalker, arrives not as Plausible Person but as Cinematic Archetype; in this case, the archetype being Romantic Loser Par Excellence. While this movie bobs and staggers as Entertainment (lots of random styles here, inorganically heaved together like Oliver Stone trying to seem cool), it nonetheless functions rather well as Social Study; so you could say I enjoyed it clinically.

From its opening cards chastising co-screenwriter Scott Neustadter's ex for being (and I quote) a "Bitch" (he's called the script his therapy; significantly, he is vertically-challenged), (500) Days is a movie about heartbreak from the youngish adult male's point of view. Which isn't -- if you consider all the war movies, stupid macho dust-ups and junk franchises to which we have collectively grown accustomed -- all that common. So bravo for that. I was drawn to it because the trailer commences with The Smiths' immortal "There Is a Light that Never Goes Out" (my final exam selection for college vocal class), and its leads (he looking like a botched clone of Heath Ledger; she looking glassily bovine if also kinda cute -- too bad she's an actress) proved pleasingly unfamiliar to me. Then it was the theme (overt male heartbreak) that got me in the door.

What kept me in the seat was the awkward conflict and struggle. While it was obvious to me from the trailer that some guy dumb enough to liken mutual appreciation of The Smiths to a foundation for romantic partnership is begging on his bloody knees for severe punishment (I've tried it with The Cure: miserable failure) -- and indeed our guy Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) never puts it together that his notion of an ideal "One" practically guarantees "Buh-Bye!" from women (especially deranged, flighty, immature women; this movie understands its Hell-A milieu) -- the study here, which is presented almost entirely from his point of view, proves complex and nuanced enough to sustain intrigue. At the start, a throaty and unnecessary voice-over narrator informs us that this is "not a love story" -- but yes it is; it's just an honest and unpleasant one.

Meaninglessness celebrated.
(photo: Fox Searchlight)

The gist is that fledgling director Marc Webb and his crew flip us erratically back and forth through the eponymous 500 days, as New Jersey transplant Tom falls pathetically hard for Michigan transplant (and also eponymous) Summer (Zooey Deschanel). (I'm of the opinion that New Jersey people and Michigan people deserve each other, but that's another matter.) They meet cute via their shabby jobs designing greeting cards, then run the gamut of cuter (sauced-up karaoke), even cuter (domestic clowning at IKEA; Chinese-people gag included, har-har), and even more cuter (she steals a furtive first kiss at the photocopy machines). Animated title-cards numbering the days divide the temporally jumbled-up scenes, but played out chronologically it's like any bad relationship: Up front, lots of appetite and experimentation and fun and sex and pushing undesired mp3s on one another; then lazy denial from her ("I'm tired.") and open hostility from him ("You just do what you want, don't you?") as it all goes south near the end. Come to think of it, as with that overrated gimmick flick Memento, the only reason this movie doesn't play out in a forward-linear fashion is that it's all so structurally obvious that there would be no point (Two for the Road, it ain't).

Still, although echoes of everything from peak-level Woody Allen (that'd be 1977) to "Booger" from Better Off Dead (Tom's friends here) to a low-end Ferris Bueller knock-off (an incongruous musical sequence) render the writing far from original, Neustadter (who says he began the project as vengeance toward a girl who "dumped the shit out of him") and his apparently less-reactionary co-screenwriter Michael H. Weber very nearly mount an exposé on how sick and insane "love" amongst L.A. singletons generally really, really is. "Why is it that pretty girls think they can treat everybody like crap and get away with it?" begs Tom; to which his "Booger" (Geoffrey Arend) replies: "Centuries of reinforcement."

These guys also get lots of the rottenness of romance right: Witness how Summer blithely gives her all to Tom and even takes him to her girlie sanctum sanctorum and shares her innermost thoughts -- just so she can then completely devastate him by equally blithely casting him away into the cold, dark (and ugly -- it's L.A.) night. The screenwriters never make an explicit point of how evil this manipulative ploy is on Summer's part -- but oh I would have. (At least they openly note how women's fashion has become aggressively hideous since its girlie-glam glory in the '60s.)

But their Tom is no shining hero, either. While they handle him (perhaps unconsciously?) with kid gloves apart from mild alcohol abuse and tantrums, I see this guy all over L.A. all the time: Usually in the form of coddled industry man-children who cannot comprehend why an outwardly pretty, severely passive-aggressive transplanted woman wouldn't want to step in directly to replace their mother so they can avoid dealing with (and gawd-forbid loving, or even liking) the rest of humanity outside their car, office and bedroom. To the screenwriters' credit, their Tom is as blind and self-obsessed as most single guys in L.A., so at least the accuracy of the regional portraiture sustains across the gender-gap.

Ever have one of these romances?
(photo: Fox Searchlight)

Is (500) Days a great movie? Naw. Frankly it dies cold between its cherry-picked vintage soundtrack hits (and even the Alt songs here are rather MOR-Alt: Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man" -- Whee.), plus with emotions this raw and ravaged I'd rather see a bit of blood on the screen rather than the cutesy-ass little denouement we actually get (last year's Sex and Death 101 nailed these themes much harder). Additionally, there's a scene involving a post-job-interview date (between competing, opposite-sex applicants) which is played for totally implausible sweetness but in the real world would be entirely about interrogating and conquering. Oh, and can Hollywood please just stop with the Santa Barbara weddings already? Everybody knows they end in vicious divorces the instant the money runs out.

All that said, as with a lot of truly satisfying art, (500) Days asks many more questions than it answers, and does so in such a charmingly sloppy fashion that one's consciousness is left buzzing rather than sedated. I note that it shares a producer with the insanely overhyped Juno -- but unlike that movie this slim narrative is not overwhelmed by irritating kitsch and a relentlessly twee soundtrack (it's only kinda twee), plus the dialogue doesn't totally suck seagull cloacae.

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