It's too soon to tell whether (500) Days of Summer (***1/2 out of four) will emerge as an Annie Hall or The Graduate for this generation -- or at least supplant Garden State insofar as being the movie of choice for lovelorn folks trying to make some sense out of their lives. My feeling is that it won't pull it off, given its platform distribution and indie roots (maybe the studio should have cast Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox to star and Michael Bay to direct?). But so what? The beauty of this utterly winning picture is that it doesn't live in a generational vacuum: Like the best films of its kind, its tale of young love (and all the accompanying trials and tribulations) will speak to all ages. Besides, it's safe to say that those of us who have actually seen The Graduate (heavily referenced throughout) are in a better position to appreciate its nuances than those whose knowledge of Dustin Hoffman begins and ends with that Meet the Parents sequel.
Written by the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (whose only other credit is, uh, The Pink Panther 2) and directed by Marc Webb in his feature-film debut, (500) Days of Summer opens with an unfortunate author's note that not only seems too harsh under the circumstances but also spells out exactly where the entire film is heading. Get past that, however, and only good times lay ahead.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a sweet kid who works for a greeting card company even though his real dream has always been to become an architect. Into the workplace walks new employee Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), and Tom is immediately smitten. Tom, a romantic at heart, has always hoped to be swept off his feet by the overpowering force of true love, and while he comes to truly care for Summer, he also clearly loves the idea of being in love with another person. Summer, however, isn't on the same page: More cynical in nature, she doesn't particularly subscribe to the notion of true love and sees Tom as a "friend with benefits." Tom does his best to keep their union afloat, but he obviously has his work cut out for him.
Rather than spill the story in chronological order, Webb and team have elected to jump back and forth to various points in the relationship, showing the pair happy one minute and gloomy the next. In the wrong hands, such a decision might have turned out unwieldly or awkward, but here the scenes flow smoothly, making sense not only narratively (on-screen markers always alert us to the day being shown) but also emotionally, allowing us to fully understand and appreciate how earlier incidents might affect the characters' mindsets during later ones.
Webb's imagination also extends to the film's look. Romantic comedies aren't exactly known for their visual wit, but this one has fun playing around with movie conventions, particularly in a scene in which Tom imagines himself as the protagonist in various black-and-white foreign flicks. There's also a brilliant cameo of sorts by a Star Wars character, the result being the funniest moment in any film released thus far in 2009.
Ultimately, though, none of this would work without the proper actors essaying the roles of Tom and Summer. Webb struck gold by casting Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, two adorable talents whose open faces and inviting eyes seem to allow audiences access to their very psyches. Because of them, we find ourselves completely invested in Tom and Summer, and their love story becomes our love story, warts and all.