(500) Days of Summer is a love story for my generation. Though it proudly declares at the outset that “this is not a love story,” the film is wholly about love. Or rather, it’s about our discombobulated, postmodern idea of love mixed with the rapturous ephemera of passion and romance. It’s about how difficult love is for a generation of youngsters who haven’t seen love first hand (their parents are usually divorced) and yet have been fed a steady stream of love abstractions as filtered through soap operas and The Sound of Music and Jesus and Mary Chain songs. This is a movie about “movie-style” love and “movie-style” life. It’s about the difficulties that arise when our ideas of love and life come entirely through artist renderings and Hollywood fakery.
The film is on one level a conventional “boy-meets-girl” love story. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), they fall in love, break up, maybe get back together, and then… But the film is aggressively unconventional in a familiar (but refreshingly well executed) indie sort of way. The storytelling is nonlinear, there are unexpected camera angles, split screens, clever editing, eclectic songs, pastiche references at every turn, etc. It’s a film that embraces postmodern stylistic mixology in a way that doesn’t feel contrived because this is exactly what the film is about: hyper-mediated love among the ruins of modernism.
It is fitting (and hardly a coincidence) that when Summer and Tom first meet, Tom is wearing headphones, listening to a Smiths song. They are in an elevator, Summer hears the song and makes a comment. They bond over a shared love of The Smiths. Their romance is off to the races.
It is appropriate that their first connection comes through the separation of headphones and indie music, because their entire relationship is ultimately defined through these sorts of media experiences. Their first romantic date—and one of the best scenes of the film—takes place in IKEA, an icon of 21st century yuppie capitalism that in this film stands as a sort of contemporary version of post-war Sears suburbia of the Ozzie and Harriet variety. Tom and Summer “play house” in the various IKEA showrooms, lounging on beds and acting the part of husband and housewife. This nostalgic simulacrum is as close as they ever get to a true domestic bliss scenario, however. Though Tom wants a deeper relationship, Summer isn’t ever completely sure. But both of them seem completely comfortable acting the part.
Throughout the film, there is a keen sense that Tom and Summer are living out performances on a dramatic stage rather than real lives in real places. At various points in the movie they are singing or dancing (literally), appearing in their own Bergman film festival (Tom), or talking about themselves in terms of pop culture characters. Summer likes to think of their relationship as like that of Sid and Nancy (i.e. doomed), while Tom has a romantic belief that they are more like Ben and Elaine from The Graduate.
The whole film—their conversations, dress, hairstyles, and the filmmaking style itself—is filtered through pop culture history, from “Knight Rider” to Jean-Luc Godard to An American in Paris. It’s an anachronistic film that feels strangely like it could be set in Mad Men-era NYC even though it is actually set in Wii-era Los Angeles (a Los Angeles film that feels as cool as New York?? What??), though it’s really not about real place as much as surreal, Hollywood-conjured place. The L.A. of Summer is the “downtown, vintage revival” L.A. that is currently drawing gentrified hipsters back to the urban core. But it still feels unfamiliar and distant to me, as does most everything in the movie. But in a weird way it still feels true.
(500) Days of Summer is an enchanting film that rings true by virtue of the fact that everything in it is so infused with artifice, melodrama, and indie tropes. It feels real even while it constantly reminds us that it is fiction. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are fantastic in it and really sell us on the excitement and bipolar confusion of young love in a post-MTV world where “love” is easy to imagine but increasingly hard to live out naturally, apart from prescribed scripts, cultural narratives, and Smiths soundtracks.