Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't. When Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hapless greeting card copywriter and hopeless romantic, is blind-sided after his girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel) dumps him, he shifts back and forth through various periods of their 500 days 'together" to try to figure out where things went wrong. His reflections ultimately lead him to finally rediscover his true passions in life.
I'm not entirely sure how it gets away with it, but 500 Days of Summer manages to bluff a disdain for the conventions of the romantic comedy genre, even as it plays to familiar beats. It has no right to be as delightful as it is. And yet here we are.
Tom (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a bored greeting card composer, aspiring architect and hopeless romantic. When the doe-eyed, retro-cool Summer (Zooey Deschanel) starts work at the office, he falls hard, and a courtship soon blossoms out of a shared love of The Smiths.
Director Mark Webb has long track record in music videos so it’s appropriate that his first feature has all the elements of a great mix tape. There’s an overwhelming familiarity to it – most people have likely dated a Tom or a Summer – but with inventive execution and well-rounded characters, it diverts from the well-trodden path enough to sustain enthusiasm.
A clever narrative device charts the progress of Tom and Summer’s doomed relationship through a curated selection of their 500 days together. We dart back and forth from the giddy blush of first love, to the stony silence of the days leading up to the split, and back again, to the nervous tension of their first date. The fractured timeline works a treat and rings true; who ever scrutinises the events of a breakup in chronological order?
In one memorable sequence Tom and Summer role-play as happy homemakers at that epicentre of domesticity, Ikea. In a neat subversion of the Swedish design house’s one-way shopping policy, a split-screen offers dual outcomes to reveal the precise moments that Tom’s expectations take a sharp U-turn from reality.
500 Days will draw inevitable comparisons to Annie Hall, in its attempt to deconstruct a love grown cold. But you know what? It holds up, mostly on the strength and integrity of its lead performances. Gordon-Levitt has honed his craft for years in small indie standouts like Mysterious Skin and Brick, and his likeable, vulnerable Tom is bound to widen his fan base tenfold. So too Deschanel; the darling of the indie-set is a natural fit for the headstrong Summer. To be sure, she’s entirely a creature of Tom’s memory, and a lesser movie would keep her limited to that unknowable, irresistible, female saviour of artsy white male leads, the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl'. 500 Days of Summer bounces close to the line on that one, but manages to interrogate that sexist trope a little, by preventing us from aligning too strongly with Tom's inability to reconcile the complex character of his girlfriend with his quirky fantasy version.
Manage your expectations; 500 Days of Summer doesn't entirely entirely break the rom-com mould (the quirky friends and drunk karaoke still get a look-in), but it brings a level of depth and believability to the genre that’s been AWOL for too long.
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500 Days of Summer screens on SBS Viceland at 8.35pm on Thursday 6 September. Please note the movie won't be available for catch-up viewing at SBS On Demand.