In a basement somewhere in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley there sits
a machine. If you were to feed this machine a DVD of Annie Hall, a cool
kid’s iPod, a book about 21st century hipster culture and a Fox
Searchlight logo, it would output 500 Days of Summer. Which isn’t to
say that 500 Days of Summer is a bad movie – it by no means is bad, and
aside from a few minor quibbles I don’t have many truly negative things
to say about the film – but it is a fairly unoriginal, quite
conventional movie that is designed to specifically appeal to people
who think they’re very original and not at all conventional.

The film is a semi-non-linear (it jumps between two time tracks, each
of which is individually linear) look at a relationship that doesn’t
work out. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Tom, a greeting card writer with
aspirations of being an architect. Zooey Deschanel is Summer, the new
secretary at the office, and the film begins with the day he first
meets her, goes through the beginning stages of their relationship, the
ending, the post-breakup depression and finally how Tom rebuilds
himself. 500 Days of Summer doesn’t break the fourth wall in the same
way that Annie Hall does, but it plays with form in similar ways –
there’s a sketched scene, a spontaneous dance number, a split-screen showing what
Tom hopes will happen in a particular scene versus what really does
happen. These scenes are almost all clever and work (one scene where
Tom is watching foreign films and sees himself in them fails utterly –
the joke is so old and so tired that it’s hard to imagine anybody
thinking that a joke about The Seventh Seal chess game is funny post
Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), and the entire film is charming, funny
and amiable.

But it’s missing something bigger at the center. Levitt is actually
pretty great as Tom, but he’s up against Zooey Deschanel, an actress
I’ve come to reevaluate in the last few months. Deschanel is beautiful
and watchable, but she has no energy. Scratch that – she absorbs energy
from the scene around her. I would swear that I saw lights dimming as
she walks under them. I’m simply coming to think that Deschanel is a supporting actress in a lead actress’ body. And while director Marc Webb and screenwriters
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber learned a lot from obvious
rewatchings of Annie Hall (and probably Eternal Sunshine), what they
didn’t learn was to give Summer a real character. She’s a blank, which
at first is part of the point, but while Tom gets to know her, we never
do. She’s an object, not a person, and that makes it hard understand
why he loves her so deeply. The script gives her quirks – Ringo is her
favorite Beatle because he’s nobody’s favorite Beatle! – but not depth.
And when the time comes to give her depth, when she tells Tom a story
she’s never told anyone else, we don’t get to hear it. Even when Tom
follows advice to take another look at the relationship to find the
bad, all we get are scenes where Summer is obviously on the verge of
breaking up with him, not scenes that show why Summer maybe wasn’t his
soul mate. We never get to really understand Summer’s soul at all.

I do want to take a moment to congratulate Webb on creating a nice
alternate Los Angeles where people walk the streets and take the bus
and subway. He shoots places that have rarely been shot in this wildly
overshot town, and it actually took me about 20 minutes to nail down
that this was supposed to be Los Angeles. The film itself is lovely and
features some really terrific urban photography, showing parts of
downtown LA in ways that I had never before seen them.

Too bad there’s nothing else here as original. While the film is
ultimately amiable and feels mightily commercial (and features the best
Han Solo cameo in history), it feels like a product of the modern
reference phase of cinema. 500 Days of Summer feels like a movie made
by somebody who sees life through movies; while I don’t doubt that many
of the events in the film are autobiographical on someone’s part –
they’re often generic enough to feel autobiographical for anyone in the
audience who has ever been dumped – they all are filtered through other
movies or songs or TV shows. At one point Tom complains that modern pop
music and movies have skewed what we expect from love, but a complete
immersion in pop culture seems to have also skewed this movie away from
having any real feelings or thoughts of its own. A fine date film, a
movie that will likely hit big and make a bunch of money and sell a
bunch of soundtracks and a movie that will announce a director with a very slick,
studio-oriented style who will get a ton of work, 500 Days of Summer
will only end up as well regarded as its influences by people who
haven’t seen them.

7.5 out of 10