By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Everything Tom Hansen knows about love, he learned from the movies. Many of us do, and, just like Tom, we're terribly misinformed.
Love isn't tidy or predestined. It can spring from nowhere special and doesn't always lead to forever. No telling how many romantic trials and errors we'll go through. Tom believes in The One so fervently that all others don't exist until Summer Finn arrives.
Summer isn't sure she wants to be Tom's One, or anyone else's for that matter. She's also what movies don't usually offer: a woman so perfectly balanced that she doesn't need a man. Tom is certain he can change her mind.
So begins Tom's (500) Days of Summer, a movie whose blithe narrator immediately declares it's a boy-meets-girl story, "but you should know up front that this isn't a love story."
What Marc Webb's film is, is an endlessly charming revision of everything phony that romantic comedies have become. Yet it incorporates everything so familiar about rom-coms — happy-time montages, pop music interludes, a third party getting in the way — with such ingenuity that a recent hit like The Proposal feels obsolete.
After two viewings, (500) Days of Summer remains my favorite 2009 film, so far.
(500) Days of Summer operates like a jilted lover sorting through what went right and wrong. Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber turn Tom's months of infatuation into a flipbook of memories, with barely two of the 500 days shown in succession. Each day reveals something new; even memories repeated later gain different perspectives.
The time-shuffling conceit disguises the fact that (500) Days of Summer, if laid out chronologically, is a fairly standard rom-com narrative so mainstream audiences can certainly relate. All the filmmakers are doing is rearranging the notes and rhythm of a familiar tune. It's the film's signature move, and a shining one.
Even casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom and Zooey Deschanel as Summer helps identify the cagey blend of old and new. Gordon-Levitt doesn't project the alpha male image making so many modern leading men difficult to believe as still single. On the other hand, Deschanel's resemblance to young Meg Ryan, with a free spirit channeled through Annie Hall, salutes romantic comedy before the formula took hold. Both performances are superb, always emotionally in tune with whatever shuffled moment they're in.
Webb creates too many wonderful moments to note except personal faves: Day 282 when Tom and Summer play "house" in an IKEA store will be re-created by real-life lovers, I'm sure. After first making love with Summer, a strutting Tom fantasizes that every bystander knows and approves, sparking a dance routine that twice sent my heart into orbit. In a brilliant nod to Woody Allen, Webb splits the screen into Tom's expectations of seeing Summer again and the reality of what occurs. And any movie using a classic like The Graduate as a key element without paling in comparison is worth celebrating.
Like that film's runaway couple, Tom and Summer don't know what happens after he lifts his hopes too high and she lets down her guard. But we do, thanks to one of the most inventive romantic comedies since Harry Met Sally, a joyous anatomy of a relationship that simply won't work. (500) Days of Summer isn't a love story, but it's an easy movie to love.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.