(500) Days of Summer quickly separates potential fans from potential skeptics. If you chuckle at the disclaimer/"dedication" that precedes the film, chances are that any complaints about its numerous structural failings will sound crotchety, picky, fussy, elitist, curmudgeonly, and unfair. If, on the other hand, you don't find the humor in the discordant, ugly note struck by the film's opening remarks, then perhaps you might want to understand why this resolutely anticomic antiromance is so unsatisfying.
The film throws together two cute zombies and tries to explain why their relationship fizzled. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a decent actor not known for his light touch, plays Tom, a greeting-card writer who's suddenly smitten with co-worker Summer, played by the lithe, large- (and blank-)eyed Zooey Deschanel. The film's narrator insists early on that the film is not a love story but more of an inquest concerning a dead relationship that scrambles and reassembles the days of Tom and Summer's courtship in its search for a cause of death.
What's so frustrating about (500) Days of Summer is the way its unconventional asides, voiceovers, and footnotes distract from the fairly original story about a sensitive guy who refuses to take an honest, forthright weirdo at her word. For example, the mysterious narrator steps in on several occasions to provide background information and trite, quasi-literary psychological analysis of Tom's and Summer's feelings, but it's unclear whether this voice belongs to an older and wiser version of Tom, an obliging script doctor, or a magical indie-film warlock sent to sprinkle the film with quirkiness and pixie dust.
That may be a small point, but the other nonrealistic flourishes are equally arbitrary and perplexing. The postcoital dance production seems less and less likely the more you think about it; it's unclear why a guy with an undying love for Joy Division and the Smiths would burst into an impromptu musical number set to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams" — better known as bumper music for dozens of terrible romantic-comedy trailers. One of the defining aspects of Tom's character, after all, is his obsession with Britpop. Why would he find inspiration in an overused piece of early-'80s schlock he'd probably hate? And Tom's art-film daydream, which relies on embarrassing clichés like mimes and chess-playing deities, mostly shows that he's never seen a movie from another country.
The failure of these nonsensical fantasy sequences is clearest in the film's chief contrivance. The jumbled chronology and juxtapositions of, say, Day 303 and Day 27 yield few surprises and feel pretty amateurish, especially for moviegoers who can remember the unexpectedly poignant and funny pleasures of 2003's rom-com Möbius strip Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In contrast, the funniest things in (500) Days of Summer are probably the costumes, which suggest that aspiring young professionals should always dress like second-graders on picture day.
The film finally drowns in waves of cleverness, and any potential insights about the solipsism and neediness of a certain kind of indie-rock boy are worn away by the never-ending tide of cutesy-poo gimmickry.