'There are only three things to be done with a woman," wrote Henry Miller. "You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature."
Or turn her into a movie.
That's what screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber have done in (500) Days of Summer, an engagingly breezy tale about a guy with a broken heart and the girl who broke it.
The kickoff entry for the Philadelphia Film Festival / Cinefest '09, (500) Days uses that Miller quotation (loosely) and adds a bit more cultural heft to its helium-balloon romance by referencing the French new wave, The Graduate, and art deco architecture.
Like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the music is key, too, not just to establish a mood, but to ID the emotional states of its characters. In heavy rotation: Belle & Sebastian, and the Smiths.
With a quasi-anthropological narration ("This is not a love story") and a nonlinear, time-toggling structure, (500) Days stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, a Generation Y guy who studied to be an architect but now pens platitudes for a greeting card company.
It is there, one fine day, that Summer (get it?) walks into the conference room - the boss' new assistant. Played by Zooey Deschanel in that uniquely Zooey Deschanel way (a wifty mix of smarts and almost too-cute cuteness), Summer is cool, beautiful, aloof.
And Tom is smitten.
(500) Days is set in Los Angeles - downtown Los Angeles, where Tom admires what's left of the early- and mid-20th-century buildings, and where he's found a spot in a park that overlooks some of his favorites. To be sure, it isn't long before Summer is sitting alongside, as Tom expounds on the glories of Walker & Eisen edifices and the virtues of a clustered skyline.
Gordon-Levitt - playing a guy alternately head-over-heels and totally bummed - pulls off the lead in ways that should do his career well. Since graduating from the '90s sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, the actor's pretty much camped out in Indieville, appearing in a bunch of great and not-so-great small, low-budget films. He holds (500) Days together with aplomb.
Deschanel does what she does seemingly without effort, managing to convey Summer's mixed-up messed-upness - she's dark, she's flirtatious, she's frank, coy, ethereal, sexy - with a kind of crazy allure that makes us understand why Tom thinks he's found his one true love.
The fact that Summer doesn't feel quite the same way is the crux of the problem.
Director Marc Webb gets too gimmicky for his own (and the film's) good: there's a dancing-in-the-streets number, replete with a line of hoofers, a kitschy Hall & Oates tune, and an animated bluebird that comes off more like a TV commercial than a witty illustration of Tom's euphoria.
And there are the usual best bro sidekicks: a well-meaning, long-married dullard, and a horny dude who gets sloppy drunk and hasn't had a girlfriend in years.
As the title suggests, Tom manages to keep his Summer for less than two years. But it's the kind of relationship that will stay in his head for a lifetime.
(500) Days of Summer *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Marc Webb. With Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes).
Playing at: The Prince Music Theater tonight at 6 and 8:30. Director Marc Webb and screenwriter Scott Neustadter will appear.