It's not that "Summer" is an entirely derivative work, but when a film is touted for its imagination, call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to see something new. The story and performances are satisfying, but its impossible to hear the staccato, high-brow, third-person narration without being reminded of Wes Anderson's "Royal Tenenbaums," or ignore the similarities to Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in its non-linear examination of a crumbling relationship, or even watch the film's exuberant park dance sequence without being distracted by its striking resemblance to a number in Disney's "Enchanted."
The film relies on a few other pet peeve cliches, like a precocious eleven year old (Chloe Moretz) who coaches her grown-up brother, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), through his rocky relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), or the ending. There's unquestionably more emotional maturity on display in Webb's film than in most PG-13 Hollywood romantic comedies, but its final moments are pure formula. It's not that Tom and Summer are able to reconcile; they aren't. The trailer said as much. But the popular, ludicrously sentimental and instantly unnecessary rule in ending a romantic comedy in which the love interests don't reunite is that the protagonist needs to meet someone else by the film's end, almost always tacked onto the last five minutes. And as if that wasn't sappy enough, Tom's new girl is eye-rollingly named 'Autumn.' Come on, movie. You were talking about real people there for a minute.
But as I said, the film is halfway able to overcome its foundation of cliches mostly thanks to the stellar performances of its cast. Zooey Deschanel is adorable and completely believable as the sort of siren that would drive a guy like Tom out of his mind. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is charming and funny and never comes off as pathetic as the character easily could. The supporting cast, particularly Geoffrey Arend as Tom's buddy McKenzie, is spot on.
Still, "Summer" is atonal, perhaps from inception in its intention to create both visual metaphors for the sublimity of love and the unapologetic reality of loneliness, but the two worlds never cooperate for the artistic whole, effective as they may be apart. The occasional superfluous bit of narration, precedent-setting but decidedly uncommon fantasy sequences, textbook indie quirk, and non-sequential storytelling all ultimately distract from what would otherwise be considered an acceptable but utterly average love story. And let's face it. To suggest "500 Days of Summer" isn't a love story makes for a nice piece of sloganeering, but is as gimmicky and wafer-thin as the methods Webb employs to distinguish his film from the rest of the romcom crowd. It's a sweet, human piece of storytelling undone by its faux-ingenuity. Everything that distinguishes "500 Days of Summer" has been done better before, and while it's still worth a few healthy chuckles, the young filmmakers hardly make a name for themselves beyond copycats.