Boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It's been done to emo death. That's why the sublimely smart-sexy-joyful-sad (500) Days of Summer hits you like a blast of pure romantic oxygen. It turns the genre on its empty head and sees relationships for what they are — a bruising business. Someone's heart always gets ripped out. Meet Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, letting his charm flag fly), a would-be architect idling in L.A. as a writer of greeting cards. In strolls his boss's new assistant, Summer (the glorious Zooey Deschanel), and Tom's a goner. For her, prizing independence, their affair is a lark. For him, raised on sappy Brit pop and a total misreading of The Graduate (he thinks the ending is happy), it's love. So when she walks away, firmly but with kindness, you feel the pain, the kind that evaporates quickly only on sitcoms.
Marc Webb is a debuting feature director with style to burn. With a seriously funny and touching script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the movie spins a variation on Memento, shuffling through Tom's 500 days with Summer in a random order that lets us see the fun times and the fault lines. A gimmick? Maybe. But Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are star-crossed lovers to die for. They play it for real, with a grasp of subtlety and feeling that goes beyond the call of breezy duty.
This knockout of a movie expertly blends bliss (a dance number complete with an animated blue jay after Tom spends his first night in bed with Summer) and the blues (a split-screen segment in which Tom's expectation of winning back Summer clashes with reality). The ending is tidy and way too cute, but (500) Days is otherwise a different kind of love story: an honest one that takes a piece out of you.