It must be hard being an indie film hero. You've got a lot of things going for you: you're always smart, a little nerdy, vaguely creative, and enjoyably sarcastic -- but you're doomed to melt whenever you encounter the first unthreateningly quirky Manic Pixie Dream Girl who crosses your path. This sensitive romantic is an annoyingly ubiquitous archetype, but there's a simple reason for his existence: this is the same type of guy who writes screenplays. If -- as in many relationships -- we can't change them, we might as well enjoy being with them.
That's the case with Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the hero of (500) Days of Summer. A frustrated greeting card writer (check) with ambitions (check) of being an architect, Tom also happens to be a hopeless romantic (check) head-over-heels in love with the concept of true love. He soon meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and falls hard for her because ... because, well, she's Zooey Deschanel and was seemingly created in a lab to be adorable.
The only problem is that Summer doesn't believe in love or soulmates or destiny, only in keeping things "casual." But she does like the way Tom sings karaoke, so despite their differences the pair embark on a tender hipster romance, filled with trips to record stores, foreign films and Ikea. Unfortunately the relationship inexplicably sours and Summer unceremoniously dumps him over the least appetizing pancakes ever committed to film. Tom flashes back through their relationship from first glance to last fight to determine where things went wrong. After all, if he couldn't make it work with a girl who was perfect for him (she even liked The Smiths!), what does that say about true love?
Because (500) Days of Summer is a movie, there's a fairly obvious answer to that question, and to the film's credit it answers it about halfway through. The rest is scribbling in the margins, and at that the film is enjoyably successful. Gordon-Levitt's coiled intensity works in the film's favor; he has an edge to him that separates him from the sensitive-boy masses. (Deschanel, though, suffers from an underwritten part; it's hard to play a character who's meant to be inscrutable.) Even when he's whining and pining and breaking plates Tom, along with his friends (Geoffrey Arand and Matthew Gray Gubler), is fun to just hang out with.
Along the way director Marc Webb, like many music video veterans, meticulously soundtracks every scene within an inch of its life. He also piles on the demographic strokers, some of which (an ironic title card, an omniscient narrator) work, some of which (Gordon-Levitt's trying-too-hard band T-shirt wardrobe) don't.
But unlike many first-time directors Webb also takes chances. He throws in a joyous post-coital Hall and Oates dance routine (complete with animated bird), a virtuoso split-screen sequence, mockumentary talking head interviews and numerous foreign film homages. You can feel the straining sometimes but ultimately, like a persistent movie suitor, the film charms through sheer force of effort.
If (500) Days of Summer is to be remembered for anything, though, I hope it is for finally putting to death the curious film shorthand that if two people share semi-obscure (or even totally obscure) pop culture interests, they are made to be together. Despite what Zach Braff or Michael Cera might say, indie music is not enough to build a relationship on.