On the surface, (500) Days of Summer really is no different than, oh, let's say, The Proposal, in which Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock spun box-office gold from romantic comedy's refrigerator fuzz. Former music-video maker Marc Webb's feature debut is as conventional as any made-for-cable rom-com, down to its soft-indie-rock soundtrack on which star Zooey Deschanel deadpans her way through yet another stand-by standard: the Smiths' "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want"— in this case, a staple of the genre since its use in both Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Pretty in Pink. The narrator warns us in advance of the train wreck we're about to witness: "This is not a love story" ... meaning, of course, that that is precisely what it is.
But unlike The Proposal and its factory-made ilk, (500) Days of Summer is far less interested in the will-they-or-won't-they and more concerned with the why-can't-they. Its lovers — Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom and Deschanel's Summer, natch — are perfect for each other, yet are perhaps still not meant to be together. He is forever in search of his soulmate, inspired by too much mid-'80s Britpop and an incorrect reading of The Graduate's finale. She insists she's looking only for a commitment-free good time, no doubt the result of a childhood spent being the object of everyone's affection. (This is called "The Summer Effect," caused by prolonged exposure to Deschanel's coffee-saucer eyes.) The question is: Can Tom, an uncharacteristically lovable and dependable Gordon-Levitt creation, convince his fuckbuddy, the dude in this relationship, to stick around past daybreak?
Tom works at a small, bland, and indie-film-quirky greeting-card company, where they cook up such novelties as "Other Mother's Day," to be held on May 21. Tom has greater aspirations — he studied to be an architect — but for no apparent reason, he has suppressed his passion and chosen to squander his talent writing empty aphorisms. Then, in walks Summer, a Margaret Keane painting with perfect knees who's been hired as the boss's assistant and who shares Tom's passion for the Smiths, which he listens to through adorably oversize headphones — shades of Garden State, to which (500) Days of Summer owes more than a few cents in residuals. She's an almost mythical creature living in a perfectly appointed fantasia; even in crystal-clear high-definition, Summer would look like she's being shot through a gauze-covered lens. Deschanel, after suffering through a string of movies in which she's the Unattainably Quirky Goddess of Awesome (The Go-Getter, Happiness, The Good Life, and the soggy Flakes), has finally found a director and a screenplay who knows how to use her and how shoot her: like she's an eclipse.
Webb, working from a screenplay by the men responsible for The Pink Panther 2 (sweet fancy Moses), employs a storytelling gimmick to render his movie palatably unconventional. The director introduces us to Tom and Summer mid-breakup, then takes us back to the moment during which they share their first glance, then back and forth and back and forth and beyond, until each glimpse is recontextualized and thus reconsidered. Very Sundance-y. Early during their relationship, for instance, they take a trip to an Ikea and pretend to be young marrieds bouncing from room to room in their neatly assembled apartment. But in the same spot just months later — just seconds, for the audience — Tom finds Summer no longer amused by his antics; she can't even stand the thought of holding his hand.
The real surprise of (500) Days of Summer isn't the presentation — this isn't exactly Steven Soderbergh or Alejandro González Iñárritu territory here. It's more like a love story in a blender. What is unexpected is the sincerity beneath the modest conceit that, yup, love hurts. The movie doesn't merely deal with the coming together and the falling apart, but the hangover that follows for both parties — which is why the movie lasts 500 days, despite a bust-up that comes well before that. No one is the villain, no one is the victim; sometimes, it just isn't meant to be (or is it?). Hence the remarkable, devastating dinner-party scene near the end, during which we see the couple's relationship as Tom wishes it were — and then as it really is.