Remember Memento, Christopher Nolan’s amnesiac mind-bender? It was a tale of trying to retrieve the past told backward. In 2002, the Special Edition DVD of the film included a hidden feature that allowed you to watch the movie in reverse — that is, in rough chronological order. I never did sit down and watch it that way; I think I was worried that I still wouldn’t be able to follow it. (Much as I cherish Memento, the beauty of Nolan’s hypnotic puzzle thriller is that its narrative logic always remains a shade out of the reach of your mind’s eye.) Yet thinking back on it gave me an idea: When the time-hopping indie-hit romance (500) Days of Summer finally comes out on DVD, wouldn’t it be fun if there were a special feature that allowed you to watch it in chronological order?
The reason I ask the question is that the central device in (500) Days — we follow the romance of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a failed-architect-turned-greeting-card-writer, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit, by bouncing around in time — so defines the movie that you might be tempted to think that’s more or less all there is to it. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that what has been charming audiences about (500) Days isn’t just its playful, artfully structured cinematic cleverness. Scene for scene, the movie is the opposite of jumpy; it’s fresh, deft, funny, supple, intimate, and emotionally sly.
I’ve seen (500) Days twice now, and what enchanted me as much or more the second time is the sheer understated and delighted humanity of almost every moment. I keep thinking back to scenes like the office karaoke party, in which Summer does her version of Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town” (most awesome song choice ever) and then, just as we’re sure we’re watching a typical cool-cute movie-ish name-that-tune sing-along fantasy, something quietly dramatic happens: Tom gets up and does his pretty damn good rendition of the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” and we see Summer’s whole attitude toward him change in the light of her eye.
I relish, as well, the scene in which Summer is approached by a belligerent lothario-jerk at a bar and Tom feels compelled to “save” her by punching the guy — which doesn’t work at all, because he’s not really doing it for her, but to prove something; or the moment when Tom quits his job with a big rousing, self-loathing speech, which his dweebish work buddy McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) attempts to salute, for a few awkward seconds, with a hilariously inappropriate “slow clap”; or the incredibly moving final park-bench conversation between Tom and Summer, in which she tries to explain the unexplainable — that she’s just not that into him.
When was the last time the heroine of a love story made that claim? The freshness of (500) Days of Summer is that it catches a generation in which girls have become “dudes,” playing the field (though they would rarely put it that way), and guys are scrambling to live in a world where they’re not allowed to be too sensitive or too macho. That’s why the film isn’t just a “romantic comedy;” it’s a delicate etching of how we live now. And that’s why, even though the scrambled-time gimmick works wonderfully, the real secret of the movie’s magic is that those 500 days might just be perfectly captivating if watched in order. Do you agree?