(500) Days of Summer

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Zooey Deschanel. Directed by Marc Webb.
Rated M (infrequent coarse language). 95 min.

This is a very unusual romantic comedy that is about the perils of defining attachments in simple terms. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a greeting-card copy writer, who works for a busy firm. While participating in a board-room meeting, he spots a girl with whom he falls head over heels in love. His love is Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a strong minded woman, who has just joined the office staff. Tom thinks romantic love is real, while Summer thinks it is not, and the scene is set for many ups and downs in their relationship together. Summer at first fails to return Tom’s ardour, but they finally bond over an attraction to literature they both like. They meet, and part, sexualize their relationship, say goodbye to each other once more, and start a relationship of sorts again.

At the basis of the attraction between Tom and Summer, the film explores the meaning of the difference between friendship and romance. For Summer, romantic love is entirely fantasy, but for Tom romance is the reality. The movie shows the pain that goes with relationships that are formed with good intentions. Their time together is just 500 days, which gives poignant meaning to the title of the film, but in this film, attachment, affection, rejection and animosity go hand in hand, and the film is about a relationship that falters, as life continues to go on.

The technique of the movie is intriguingly consistent with the on- and off-character of Tom’s and Summer’s relationship. Scenes are out of chronological order. The sequence in which they are shown (from day 488 to day 32, for example) is irregular; it expresses randomness in events that parallel experiences of real life, which are full of past recollections, current observations, coincidences, and anticipations of what might lie ahead. But together the scenes in the movie form a pattern. Some of the 500 days are sorrowful, some are happy, and some are spent making-up, just as days exist that way for a whole lot of people.

Both actors in this movie are impressive in quite demanding roles. Zooey Deschanel captures the quirkiness of Summer in a charming and natural way as a woman who  colours “(her) life with the chaos of trouble”, while Joseph Gordon Levitt captures Tom just right as an ordinary person, for whom romance might well be an escape from being boring. The direction of the film by Marc Webb is risky, but it works. Suddenly (and romantically) Tom is part of a dance routine where the colour blue, the favorite colour of Summer, features. The film’s ending expresses the risks he takes in another way.  After Summer tells him she has accepted attachment to another man, who she marries, Tom waits to be interviewed for a different job. He asks another applicant sitting in the waiting room to go for a cup of coffee with him, and the  movie ends with the seasons changing. Her name is Autumn.

It is a rare romantic movie that illustrates a romantic relationship where anything could (and does) happen. We don’t know whether Tom’s new relationship will work out, or whether Summer’s decision to marry is a sensible one or not. Both Tom and Summer have tried to form some kind of attachment, even though their relationships with other people are also likely to be flawed.

The movie as a whole is less a romance than a cautionary tale about the perils of defining attachment in a particular way; and it is less about the predictability of relationships than what happens to attachments in-between. This is a movie that has great virtuosity behind it. At one point in the movie, Marc Webb splits his screen into two parts - one says “reality”, and the other says “expectations” - which expresses what the film (and life, Webb says) is all about. The film’s technical proficiency is captured well in scenes that are lit with different hues and brightness to reflect the emotions that are being displayed. The scripting in the film is excellent, and it backs up the film’s inquisitive tone, which is heightened by the Director’s visual style. 

This is a clever movie. It is not a world-beater in the quality stakes, but it is very watchable, refreshingly different, and highly enjoyable. 

Twentieth Century Fox  Out September 17, 2009

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


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