Like its winning hero, this movie wears its heart right on its sleeve. It lays it out for us right at the beginning, making it clear that “this is not a love story.” Oh, and it is a work of fiction. The usual disclaimer from the closing credits appears up front, letting us know that none of the characters should be confused with anyone in real life. Especially one named young woman in particular. Who is then described with an epithet often heard in a kennel.
It’s wrong about one thing; it is a love story. But that does not make it a happy love story. This is, as the narrator obligingly informs us, the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who believes in love and believes that he will find true love and it will make him happy, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who does not believe in love and thinks that her 20’s should be about having fun. A match made in heaven? In the movies, maybe, but not this one.
It has been a long time, perhaps since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” since a movie evoked the joys and pains of first love with such art and delicacy. We know from the title that the romance will last 500 days. The movie shows us that period thematically rather than chronologically so that we go from a day near the end of their relationship to a day near the beginning that explains what the later one was about. By the time we see those first, early moments of heady connection, we realize how the sweetness of those initial feelings will become almost unbearably poignant. In one encounter late in their relationship, when he comes to a party she is hosting, we see a split screen, one marked “expectation” and the other “reality.” The differences between them are subtle, but telling.
Director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber think very cinematically, using the unique attributes of film to evoke the feelings and experiences of the characters. And Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are two of the most appealing and talented young performers in Hollywood and they create characters who are vibrant and real. We may not know whether they will stay in love with each other, but the audience will fall in love with them.