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MOVIE REVIEW

(500) Days of Summer

Sweetly seasoned: ‘(500) Days’ gets by on its charm

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 17, 2009
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“(500) Days of Summer’’ is a gimmick flick down to its title: Summer is a girl, not a season, and 500 days is the amount of time the hero spends falling in and out of love with her. Making his first feature after a successful run of pop videos (Regina Spektor, Daniel Powter, Fergie, etc.), Mark Webb dices the scenes Iron Chef-style, tosses them in the air, and lets them rain achronologically down: Day 34 (Ain’t Love Grand?) is followed by Day 436 (Head in Oven) is followed by Day 257 (We Have to Talk). A ruthlessly hip alt-pop soundtrack is slathered on top like high-fructose frosting.

In short, “(500) Days of Summer’’ should be everything that’s wrong with the remnants of independent American filmmaking, telling the same old story in a superficially new style. (If Webb were really daring, he’d tell this story straight; if he had real skill, he’d make it interesting.) Yet the movie charmed me enough to send me out smiling, and I can see younger filmgoers taking it very much to heart. It’s an “Annie Hall’’ for the iPod generation: über-designed, pleasing to the touch, making up in generic sweetness what it lacks in bite.

It also has Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in the leads, which matters. His character, Tom, is a Los Angeles 20-something who has traded his architectural ambitions for a job as a greeting card writer; her character, Summer, is the new office assistant, freshly arrived from the Midwest with hip blue-eyed serenity. He’s a romantic and is sure she’s The One; she’s a realist who thinks he’s pretty cute. They bond over an old Smiths song, which time-stamps the movie and its sensibilities with lovely finality.

Because “(500) Days’’ jumps around in time - each scene preceded by the day’s number and a drawing of a tree that’s either in bloom or leafless despair, depending - we know the relationship is headed for trouble. Much of the wit of the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber comes from comic juxtapositions: The office elevator closes on a beaming, lovestruck Tom and opens, a year and a half later, on abject misery. Tom rhapsodizes about Summer’s myriad ways over a series of images of her; later in the movie, over the same shots, he picks away at all the faults they reveal.

It’s a clever conceit. Much of “(500) Days of Summer,’’ sadly, is only clever, including the karaoke scenes (a moratorium as of now, please), and Geoffrey Arend as Tom’s contractually required wacky best friend. That said, there’s an out-of-nowhere musical number that should feel forced and instead is an effervescent hoot; the scene plays to both Webb’s strengths and his enthusiasm. And the movie’s sense of place extends to a hushed downtown Los Angeles we rarely see on film.

The best of the smaller roles include Matthew Gray Gubler as Tom’s other friend, a seeming rogue who turns out to be the most emotionally centered person in the movie, and Clark Gregg as Tom’s boss, a gently bland fellow for whom greeting cards say everything he can’t. The worst role by far is Tom’s 10-year-old sister (Chloe Moretz), not through any fault of the actress; the character’s one of those aggravatingly wise children who only exist in movies.

The movie’s on firmer ground when it simply watches the two leads. Since “(500) Days’’ is told from Tom’s point of view, Deschanel has to embody the eternal mysteries of a hard-headed woman while coping with a part that’s frankly underwritten. (Where are her friends?) That spooky unblinking stare of hers has rarely served her better, though; there are times Summer gazes at Tom and you can tell she’s X-raying his soul. She understands what the movie only lets on slowly: The kid’s a lightweight.

This is unusual in a Young Love movie, where the hero is often vaguely sketched but we’re not meant to notice. Tom is vague, stuck between who he wants to be and who he’s settling for, and he really just hopes Summer will save him. The movie’s real drama, once you burrow beneath the frippery, is watching Tom wake to himself.

Gordon-Levitt gets it, plays to it. Since freeing himself from the “Third Rock From the Sun’’ TV franchise, the actor has moved into adult roles with dark-eyed watchfulness: In “Mysterious Skin’’ and “Brick’’ especially, he comes on like a softer, more vulnerable Edward Norton.

Yet he digs for the risk in each part, and here he gives the cautious Tom just enough specificity - an impatient line-reading, a sharp stutter of a laugh - to make you understand the character’s passivity is the point, not a design flaw. “(500) Days of Summer’’ is such a glib charmer of a movie that its biggest fans may fail to hear what it’s whispering: not that love is blind but that it can blind us to ourselves.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER Directed by: Mark Webb

Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 95 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sexual material and language)

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