Anatomy of a Romance
Writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber -- one single and recovering from a badly bruised heart, the other in a long-term relationship -- combine their admittedly limited collective experiences of love to pen a unique and profoundly realistic story of the brief relationship between a boy and a girl… OK, a romantic comedy. But unlike many examples of the genre, (500) Days of Summer is told from the guy’s perspective, making it a bitter, harsh, and unapologetically honest examination of love and heartbreak. In fact, an opening voice-over intones “this is not a love story,” letting us know that what we are about to see won’t be typical.
The film plays out like an anatomy of a romance as recalled by the selective memory of a jilted lover. Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) story lurches back and forth along the 500-day path of his and Summer’s (Zooey Deschanel) relationship. The movie opens with the couple sitting on a park bench, both examining an engagement ring on Summer’s finger. Then it jumps backward to day 1 (as denoted by a title card graphic) when they met, then forward again to day 200 (or thereabouts), then back to day 35… and so on.
This non-linear method of storytelling gained popularity with Memento in 2000 and led to a rash of films latching onto the gimmick, regardless of whether or not it made thematic sense. In 500 Days it results in some truly entertaining moments as Tom digs back through the memory banks of his relationship. Scenes of abject misery, rejection and agony are often followed by moments of sheer glee that erupt into dancing in the streets. A cute method of storytelling that not only jazzes up a well-worn genre, but also makes perfect sense as our own memories work that way -- one wonderful thought often triggering another bad memory as we slowly begin to recall how they were all connected.
Gimmicky storytelling methods aside, plenty of other things in the film work to near perfection. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel appeared together previously in the indie drama Manic, but here their on-screen chemistry jumps off the screen and into our laps. From the moment Tom lays eyes on Summer in the cubicled office of the greeting card company where they both work, we know we’re witnessing an ever-elusive magic which so many on-screen couples hope to channel, but so few do.
Almost everything first-time director Marc Webb explores rings true here. He cut his teeth on TV commercials and music videos, so it makes sense when a rousing dance number gets the laughs that it does, but first-time helmers are rarely successful at effectively incorporating such disassociated effects as split-screen, voice-over narration, graphic title-cards, and cartoon matting, all in the same movie. Webb certainly stamps the film with his own sense of playfulness, but he never comes off as if he’s mocking the idea of love by putting it in funny and uncomfortable situations to garner a quick laugh. He takes a wonderful story about a relationship and makes it fun to watch. The comedy never seems forced, and the romance always feels real. Both are traits most often overlooked or badly missed in romantic comedies.
As we stroll through the story of Tom and Summer, experiencing the highs and lows, and the good with the bad, we never feel as if we’ll only be satisfied with a happy ending. We know from the opening scenes that things don’t go well for Tom and Summer, but somehow the filmmakers have made us not care so much about that. Instead, we’re satisfied with the entertaining journey. When it’s over, we’re left with a striking reminder that love is often cruel, harsh and extremely difficult, but it’s also, by far, the best thing life has to offer.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictiures and rated “PG-13” for sexual material and language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.