“Next time you look back, I think you should look again.”
There are many memorable lines in “(500) Days of Summer,” Marc Webb’s attentive, carefully crafted ode to 20-something love lost, but none resonate this strongly. Call it “hindsight is 20/20″ for the 21st-century indie hipsters. What simple beauty there is in this observation, for who doesn’t see the past through the haze of happiness? Who bothers to remember what actually happened, the ugly parts unpainted, unsanded, unprettied?
Welcome to the universal appeal of “(500) Days of Summer,” a movie about a romance that sours naturally and a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s heard too many pop songs (hint: he loves The Smiths) to believe that can happen. There’s a kind of endearing, tortured earnestness in Levitt’s Tom, who channels all those ideas about love everlasting into the greeting cards he writes. He may own a T-shirt that emblazoned with “love will tear us apart,” but he damn sure doesn’t believe that. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit who loves her independence and doesn’t give a fig about soulmates, he’s certain he’s found just what he thinks Ben Braddock did in Mrs. Robinson. And so the exquisite agony begins.
What makes that agony so achingly real, not the slightest bit generic, is the way Webb unfolds Tom and Summer’s story. Much has been written about the way Webb plays with the concept of time in the film’s script, leaping from the beginning of the relationship to the end to the middle with just a screenshot and a number (i.e., Day 1) to guide us. There’s no concealing the fact that this is a commonplace gimmick, but it’s an extremely effective one in a movie about failed love affairs and how we recall them. Does Day 1 really mean more than Day 37, or Day 185, or the last day? Webb suggests not, since our brains capture snapshots, not linear, neatly drawn timelines. Nor do we number the days. The beginning, the end, happy times in the middle — those are the things that stick with us.
There are other things besides the time splicing that Webb, a big-screen novice, does to make “(500) Days” surprising, unusual and unforgettable. Consider a dance sequence — that Levitt, arthouse boy though he is, can cut a rug — after Tom’s first night with Summer. Or a clip where the cityscape of Los Angeles become a crude sketch, fading around Tom’s slumped silhouette. Webb pokes such self-conscious fun at some staples of the romantic dramedy genre that you can’t help but smile. If only it didn’t go so wibbly-wobbly at the en- … oh never mind. For a new director capable of this level of ironic self-awareness and humor, a little forgiveness isn’t out of the question.
Webb’s eye for details, however, is matched by his unusually keen eye for talent. Deschanel’s an obvious and spot-on choice for Summer (she’s lovely and quirky and retro, the Indie Trinity), but Levitt? The really intense, moody guy from “Manic” and “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin”? Any remaining reservations about his talent — sure he’s edgy, but is he leading man material? — evaporate in “(500) Days of Summer.” He finds humor in darker moments and exposed nerves in quieter, happier ones. Tom’s experience with Summer could be cloying or irritating, but Levitt finds the tragedy there and gives us a man who, after years of bad programming, grows up. Watching that transition is one of the chief pleasures of the insightful “(500) Days of Summer,” a look at the ways bad love changes us as much — usually even more — than the love affairs that end with wine and roses.
Other characters pop in and out with insights that nudge Tom along. Notable is Chloe Moretz, who plays Tom’s younger but infinitely smarter sister Rachel. She’s the voice of reason that cuts straight through all his syrupy, sentimental, useless greeting card crap. Wise, too, is Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), who offers another uncomplicated but revolutionary insight of his own: “She’s better than the girl of my dreams,” he says of his girlfriend. “She’s real.” Such wisdom and hope in those words. And if we’re half that smart, that’s exactly what we take away from “(500) Days of Summer.”