Like the rest of us, critics like to be taken seriously, and so post-teen romantic comedies like Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” can have a tough time receiving top-shelf adjectives. It’s safer to hold high an austere import or socially-conscious “issue” drama. The problem is, for all of its borrowings, there hasn’t been a movie quite like Webb’s in a very long time, if ever.
“(500) Days of Summer” shimmies through a delicate life-passage terrain few movies have explored with intelligence — Joan Darling’s “First Love” (1977) comes to mind, and a great Korean film still to see the light of day here, Hur Jin-ho’s “One Fine Spring Day” (2001) — and does it with what seems to be an inexhaustible gas tank of invention, brio, naturalistic wit and love.
It’s this last thing, love, that fills the movie up like a zeppelin — love for its characters and for tale-telling and for what we dream of love stories to be and for what they really are. Plus, a love for The Smiths, “The Graduate,” bouncy small talk, karaoke, the parts of Los Angeles you never see in films (thank God), the ’60s, being young and heartbroken, and the way light shines through Zooey Deschanel’s baby-blue irises. Because the love is genuine and not three-dollar-bill fake as it is in most American movies, the experience is invigorating, like a B-complex injection on a warm spring day.
The welter of details fire-hosing out of the movie would be enough to win us over: the conscientiously fable-like narration (which builds evidence for the very special “averageness” of Deschanel’s Summer by explaining how her yearbook quote of Belle & Sebastian spiked record sales in Michigan that year), the teeming animated detours (love the architectural sketches, but the cartoon songbirds might’ve been too much), the spray of specific cultural references, the now-famous post-coital dance number, the half-lit karaoke perfs that make the protagonists irresistible in each others’ eyes. And so on. (An offhand argument re: “Octopus’s Garden”: “I love Ringo,” “C’mon, nobody loves Ringo,” “That’s what I love about him.”)
It would’ve been easy to be happy with the film if it was just a mess of this stuff, but it’s a densely structured movie, a fugue between the romance’s early dizziness and its later terminal agonies, bouncing back and forth from early in the 500 days to late, and often revisiting the same moments over and over, corresponding them to others. And a case could be made that for all of its cleverness Webb’s film runs on old-fashioned movie star charm, located and nurtured like orchids — easy to kill, but beautiful when respected.
Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have lovely, self-conscious, secret-keeping, fast-talking characters to play and they play them like a thoroughbreds; I especially liked the degree to which both Summer and Levitt’s Tom did things without understanding why, and how the two actors let those moments crackle with mystery. You believe these kids, which makes their enjoyment of and amazement with each other heroically seductive.
But you step back a bit, and “(500) Days” has a larger dialogue to have with us and the culture we’re in — specifically, about the mileage between now and the ’60s, and how for Summer and Tom’s generation an idealization of the supercool free-love past is a way to manage the empty-hearted present. Which is cinephilia, isn’t it? The catnip alt-rock soundtrack is contemporary, until the movie’s final suite, under Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” when the relationship is dying on-screen but no one says anything about it.
The film is saturated with movie-love, in an expressly Godardian way — why can’t I go through a week without dropping the G-bomb? — comically referencing “Breathless” as well as Anna Karina’s coif. But the key to the hidden levels is “The Graduate,” which is used wittily at first as a flashback riff: the narrator tells us that, as a child, Tom accrued a warped sense of cosmic romance from British pop songs and “a total misreading” of Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic. Hardy har, until the end, when Tom and Summer go to a revival of the movie, and at the climax, Summer is left weeping for the wrecked promise of perfect love she always knew was a lie, and Tom still holds on blindly to the dream.