Is it possible to love a film's soundtrack more than its story? (500) Days of Summer features an aural cornucopia of Grade-A indie: the Black Lips, the Pixies, the Clash. Some couples meet cute, but Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) meet Morrissey, bonding in an office elevator over a shared love of the deliciously mopey Brit crooner. The music will instantly endear (500) Days of Summer to a good chunk of the Gen X and Gen Y audience, but then again, when cineplex screens are drowning in junk, our bar is set very, very low.
Newbie director Marc Webb comes, not surprisingly, from the world of music videos. And he understands that music is the life's blood of romance: we daydream to music falling in love. Lovers bond over linked taste in tunes. And those shared songs then take on a distinctly melancholy sting once the love affair is over.
Sensitive, gentle Tom is just the kind of dreamy 20-something that would suffer to a Smiths soundtrack. He longs to be an architect but is stuck in a not-especially rewarding job writing copy for saccharine greeting cards, a clear affront to his earnest romantic tendencies. Tom's mood is often so dour, the boss at one point moves him to the sympathy card beat where his melancholy will be better utilized. But Tom's mood significantly brightens with the arrival of Summer, a chipper oddball from the Winona Ryder and Molly Ringwald school of quirky beauty.
The structure of (500) Days aims for the oddball too; the love story of Summer and Tom is told in a fractured way, beginning near the end and then skipping about like a time-traveling Mexican jumping bean, a structure well suited for addled, internet-age psyches. Some days things are rosy, but go back in time several weeks, and the petals are definitely off of the bloom. The structure is a novelty, though it doesn't necessarily convey much beyond that Summer and Tom's love affair is an on-again-off-again roller-coaster ride and, in the end, a doomed romance.
The most lovable feature of (500) Days may be its gender-bent take on love. It is Tom, who is the moony lovesick dope determined to woo Summer despite her repeated protests that she is not quite ready for a boyfriend in this guy's take on a classic chick flick scenario. He wants commitment; she doesn't. While he seethes with longing, Summer flits breezily above it all. She's not cruel, just confounding, and her inability to commit drives Tom to distraction.
There are various scenes meant to establish the whimsy of their peculiar courtship which mark (500) Days as a hipster-esque take on the usual rom com. Tom and Summer jokingly play house in an IKEA showroom or attempt to act out the acrobatic moves in a porn film. Much of the fun is instigated by free spirit Summer, whose idea of a good time is yelling "penis!" apropos of nothing in a busy city park. Many will enjoy the break from tradition and the peculiar dynamic of their relationship in an age when every Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow dick flick seems to propose the idea of men as fun, willful, child-like creatures and women as grim, killjoy mommies. And for awhile it's a nice break. Until it isn't.
Co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber's previous credit includes Pink Panther 2. And there are many times when (500) Days indulges a superficial, goofy Inspector Clouseau-sense of humor reminiscent of such lightweight Hollywood fare. There are also some of the expected 21st century cliches, like Tom's wisecracking boy-man buddies whose experience with the opposite sex is pitiful but who don't allow that to squash their desire to dispense romantic advice.
Ultimately, great music and an especially endearing performance from Gordon-Levitt aren't enough to make (500) Days of Summer rise above a middling hipster romantic comedy with less of the shabby authenticity of Away We Go and more of the slick gloss of the latest Kate Hudson/Sandra Bullock/Katherine Heigl vehicle. Like so much self-conscious 21st century filmmaking, you get the sense the writers and the filmmakers know the notes they should hit: great music, quirky leads, and nods to the French New Wave and Mike Nichols' stomach-churning tale of anxiety and love, The Graduate. But references to a great work like The Graduate comes with a price. They only point out that (500) Days of Summer will never, ever come close to being a classic that defines a generation.