(500) Days of Summer (Fox Searchlight Pictures), the feature film debut of director Mark Webb, is to a great romantic comedy as sparkling wine is to real Champagne. Both are sweet, effervescent, and tasty on the way down, but the real thing comes by its bubbles honestly, through long fermentation in the bottle, while the lesser stuff gets its sparkle from artificial injections of CO 2. Real Champagne is a rare and lasting joy; inexpensive sparkling wine tends to go flat quickly and leave behind a sugary hangover.
I can feel this beverage metaphor slipping out of my control, but before scrapping it, let me add that the vast bulk of contemporary romantic comedies barely rise to the level of room-temperature Sprite. Looked at alongside noxious pap like The Proposal or He's Just Not That Into You,(500) Days is a keeper. It's fun both to watch and to talk about afterward, and it possesses the elusive rom-com sine qua non: two equally appealing leads who bounce wonderfully off each other. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the most exciting actors under the age of 30 (in addition to being a stone fox), and Zooey Deschanel, with her goofily mobile face and giant blue eyes, would be America's sweetheart already if America had any taste. It's a shame their pairing happens in a movie that's not as ready as it thinks it is to leave behind cliché. *
(500) Days of Summer is gimmicky right down to its title. The summer in question is not a season but a girl, played by Deschanel, and the 500 days that elapse between her first encounter with Tom (Gordon-Levitt) and their final goodbye are counted down with title cards on-screen. The enumeration isn't linear; it jumps around from day to day, so we can watch a playful kiss on Day 28 turn into a petulant sulk on Day 316. This chronological trick works neatly in spots, as when we watch Tom trying and failing to make Summer laugh, then flip back in time to a day when he cracked her up with the same joke. But the 500-day flip chart is used so often it wears out its welcome, as does an avuncular voice-over (from Airplane's Leslie Nielsen!) that offers too much twinkly wisdom about the transience of love. Tom is further weighed down with superfluous rom-com accoutrements, like two generic guy friends and a wisecracking preteen sister straight out of J.D. Salinger.
It's no spoiler to reveal that Tom and Summer's idyll is a fleeting one; the film opens on Day 488 of their relationship, when she's already eyeing the exits. Director Webb is at his best when evoking manic euphoria of young love—after his first night with Summer, Tom launches into a spontaneous MGM-style musical number complete with marching band and animated bluebird. But the flipside of that mania—the paralyzing depression Tom experiences when Summer dumps him—is communicated only through tired movie clichés. Does anyone in real life deal with a breakup by hitting the convenience store in a bathrobe to stock up on Twinkies and Jack Daniels? (Maybe it's the male equivalent of eating ice cream from the carton with a spoon, the universal grieving ritual of spurned movie heroines.)
Near the end of Tom and Summer's 500 days together, they go to a matinee of The Graduate, and as they watch the final scene (Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross in the back of the bus, staring numbly ahead), Summer weeps miserably, while Tom appears transported by the romance of it all. With impressive economy, that image captures the gulf between these two characters' experience of love; he sees only the promise of togetherness, and she sees only the inevitability of loss. If only some sharp-eyed script editor had run 500 Days through the de-sappifying machine, it could have been the first great romantic comedy of 2009.
Slate V: The critics on (500) Days of Summer and other new movies
Correction, July 17, 2009: The sentence originally misstated that this movie was the first romantic pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. They were also paired in the 2001 movie Manic. (Return to the corrected sentence.)