Remember when young people used to fall in love at the movies? I sure as hell don't. I was born in 1982, the same year E.T. showed the world that a tot named Drew Barrymore could be seduced by a wrinkly old alien. Forget about Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or Roman Holiday. The most iconic love story of my youth—if you don't count She's All That—was Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio aboard the Titanic. I honestly can't remember another head-over-heels portrayal of love on the big screen. The Devil Wears Prada argued that what women really want is fashion. In Julie and Julia, it's food. We don't even have the equivalent of John Cusack holding up a boombox—along with a piece of his heart—in Say Anything.
Carrie Bradshaw once said, "I am looking for love. Real love. Ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can't-live-without-each-other love," and even if she only found that kind of love with Prada, you have to wonder if there's a group of hopeless romantics who feel the same way. It's been 15 years since the debut of Friends, the vehicle that helped kill the love story. Since then, 20-somethings on the small (and big) screen are perpetually single, lost, and too self-absorbed to care about anybody as much as they care about themselves. The year's most vivid romance so far has been the indie mumblecore film Humpday, about two straight guys who are such intimate friends, they consider making a sex tape together. So you can't blame me for having been smitten by (500) Days of Summer. Except for one thing: I still hadn't seen it yet.
The trailer makes the movie out to be the love story my generation has been waiting for. A hipster love story with two attractive, dorky kids who meet in an elevator, bond over the Smiths and look like they shop exclusively at Barneys Co-Op. (Especially the girl—her wardrobe is impeccable.) I settled into my chair, sat up, and felt hopeful about the next 120 minutes. But then the picture started, and the film's narrator dropped some very bad news: "You should know up front, this is not a love story."
The more accurate description of (500) Days of Summer is that it's a love story allergic to love. Or at least half of it is—the girl half. She's Summer (hence the movie's name), played by Zooey Deschanel as a mysterious Daisy Buchanan for the 21st century, except her voice isn't full of money. It's full of doubt. She doesn't believe in true love, and so when she starts dating her co-worker at a greeting-card company, it's a slow courtship with so much reluctance, she probably hasn't even changed her relationship status on Facebook. The other half of this couple, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is all about love, or perhaps about being in love with the idea of love (as the Jefferson Airplane asked: "Don't you want somebody to love?"). He's so enamored with Summer, the movie registers his feelings with an Ally McBeal–esque dance number in the street, complete with animated chirping birds that glide over his head.
You almost wish that (500) Days of Summer went with that impulse, and swept the rest of the audience up with it. But instead, director Marc Webb drags us through a tortured breakup. Tom and Summer are at their best during a shopping trip to Ikea where they flop on furniture like Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, but they also bicker, yell, cry—and end things faster than Britney Spears's first marriage. I'm not giving anything away. We learn about the separation early on, and the rest of the movie is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, with so many flashbacks and flash-forwards, it feels like the writers of Lost hijacked the screenplay.
(500) Days of Summer was released by Fox Searchlight, the studio behind another love story this summer that isn't really about love. In Adam, Hugh Dancy is a young man with Asperger's syndrome who dates a woman who lives in his apartment building. She doesn't have any illness that we know of, but the couple gives new meaning to the term crazy in love. Maybe this is the way it should be. Love and dating are no longer synonymous. The idea that "All You Need Is Love" is as antiquated as the Beatles. Or it's for antiquated people—like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal (and even then, who really believed she was falling in love?) Two of the best love stories of this decade, Knocked Up and Juno, are about how an unexpected pregnancy can find you a man. It's enough to make you nostalgic for the good old days. I'm not talking about the '60s. I'm talking about the year I was a junior in high school, when Julia Roberts faced Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, and had the guts to say: "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her."