"(500) Days of Summer" is something seldom seen: an original romantic comedy.
It bristles with energy, emotional and intellectual, as it flits about the dizzying highs and weeping-karaoke lows of a passionate entanglement. The film's many virtues include an unusual storytelling conceit, a sharp sense of music, a lover's-eye view of Los Angeles and on-the-money performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
Tom (Gordon-Levitt), a greeting-card writer and frustrated architect, falls head over heels for office mate Summer (Deschanel), whose slightly off-kilter loveliness is terminally enhanced by their shared affection for the Smiths and their ability to turn IKEA into a fun house. He's romantic; she's pragmatic -- after hearing her "have fun now" philosophy, a friend declares, "You're a guy!"
The narrative hopscotches around the 500 days of their acquaintance -- as memories tend to in real life -- connecting one moment to another, seeing more clearly from the comparison. Tom's subjective recollections can paint the world as a bright, giddy dance number or a gray, hopeless dungeon.
The fractured calendar isn't all that Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's script has going for it; it's loaded with telling details (as Elvis Costello sang, "mementos of affairs") and just enough wit to stay believable. Some romantic-comedy greatest hits are sung -- the wacky best friends, the karaoke scene -- but unlike most examples of the genre, there's no taking for granted that this or that will happen, or even that these two are meant to be. "(500) Days' " truth can be painful, but the resulting comedy is more resonant.
First-time feature director Marc Webb uses his background in music video to beautifully present the action and crisply move the story along, adding subtle touches, such as seasonal color palettes, to help guide viewers through the twisted chronology. His (and the script's) larger gestures, such as split screens juxtaposing reality and fantasy, as well as animated sequences, express Tom's subjective view without mashing wrong notes.
Webb's use of music, principally pop tunes, is anything but an afterthought, as the carefully chosen songs enhance the atmospheres of scenes and chart the romance's line graph. He helps himself considerably by casting two young actors with the intelligence and versatility to convey each tiny segment of their separate arcs.
Gordon-Levitt hurls himself into moments, whether receiving a dreamed-of first kiss or angrily weeping through a karaoke massacre of "Train in Vain (Stand by Me)." It's a comedy, but he doesn't shy away from the uglier moments of heartbreak. Since finding fame on TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun," Gordon-Levitt has dug into challenging roles in often-dark dramas such as "Brick," "The Lookout" and "Mysterious Skin." Here he brandishes his romantic-lead credentials with gusto. And, by the way, he can sing and dance.
Deschanel ("Elf," "All the Real Girls"; her musical duo, She & Him) simply embodies that girl, the one who hit the center of the target without trying. Her elusiveness makes her moments of vulnerability all the more effective. She convinces the audience of not only Summer's charm, but also her uniqueness, making no mystery of why Tom falls so hard. It's a rare performance.
The other star of the film is Los Angeles; or specifically, the downtown Los Angeles that perhaps only a romantic with architectural training could reveal. The supporting cast performs admirably, but this is the Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel Show. Their chemistry, whether burning or cooling, is palpable.
"(500) Days" contains essences of "Annie Hall" (and Oates) and "Memento," of all things, managing to navigate the neural tightropes linking thoughts and emotions, and doing so with heart and humor. And it has the best closing line of any movie so far this year.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual material and language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: At selected theaters