Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber originally intended (500) Days of Summer, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, to be set in San Francisco. But after taking a walking tour of Los Angeles one day with director Marc Webb, they decided to shift its setting. With its decaying art deco buildings, grungy dive bars and gritty daytime market, downtown L.A. has a retro look which suits the movie perfectly.
"There's not a whole lot of cues off the bat to let you know the movie's set in L.A.," says Webb during a roundtable discussion in Santa Monica. "L.A. is easy to pastiche. You think of Venice, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. But the fact that there is an L.A. that was here before that is mind-boggling. The people who built downtown in the last century had a lot of hope for it. They thought there was going to be this majestic future for downtown Los Angeles. That's clearly not the way it turned out."
The old-school setting is fitting since the film's central character, an office worker named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is always looking for meaning in the past and is obsessed with architecture. He often sits on a park bench on a bluff to stare nostalgically at the buildings and admire the workmanship that went into them.
He finds who he thinks is his soul mate in new employee Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a dazzling woman who wears vintage dresses and shares his love for the world-weary music of the Smiths. They become friends and even start dating, though Summer makes it clear she doesn't consider him her boyfriend. At first, Tom is OK with that, but the more he gets to know Summer, the more he likes her. And it's not long before he's fending off other male suitors and acting possessive, creating an awkward tension between them that makes their relationship fall apart.
"We're taught that love conquers all," says Webb. "We're told that if you wax your back and learn to dance, you'll date a supermodel. That's such a fucking lie. I grew up with those assumptions, and having to deal with that in a realistic way is an important process, and it's often ignored for the sake of wish fulfillment. We wanted to set up a romantic comedy at the beginning and then slowly arrive at a different conclusion."
The movie is told out of sequence, so we see the break-up early on, as the film covers a 500-day period in a dizzying manner, randomly flashing forward and backward. One minute, Tom's elated, literally dancing in the streets to Hall & Oates' punchy "You Make My Dreams." The next, he's drinking himself into oblivion, holed up in his apartment for days.
"When I was writing the script, the only thing that's going to keep this from being a long diary entry about my woe was when I came up with the structure," says Neustadter, who based the movie on a personal experience. "After I wrote it, it stayed in a drawer for a long time. I didn't think people would laugh at the same things. Once we showed it to people, we found they related to it in a way that surprised us."
The movie is careful not to demonize Summer. It's as much Tom's fault as it is hers that things don't work out. And Deschanel portrays Summer as an adorable young woman, so even if you wanted to, you'd have a hard time blaming her for Tom's malaise.
"One of the things that's interesting about our generation is that everyone is liberated but confused about a lot of different things," says Deschanel. "There's a polarization of different points of view. People are either cynical or overly romantic about love. They'll swing the pendulum. Somebody's in love one day and totally out of love the next day. We have more freedom. We don't have to get married and we don't have to do a lot of things. But what role does love have for our generation? These characters represent that point of view."
Gordon-Levitt agrees, dismissing the notion that the movie is a "bromance" or that his character isn't manly enough to handle Summer's dismissal.
"They're individuals who don't fit into any boxes," he says. "My friends who are guys feel like the movie's honest. Whether we want to admit it or not, we've all been that guy at some point."