Full disclosure: I am extremely jealous of (500) Days of Summer. It is the first film of 2009 that I would give anything to have made it myself. But alas I did not, and so I have to be contented that first-time writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and music video director Marc Webb put together something uncommonly attuned to my own wavelength. It is a small masterpiece of anti-romantic comedy, a member of the extremely rare fraternity of films like Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, sweet, delightful movies that are an absolute bliss to watch even as they hammer home the awkward and deeply un-movie truth that being in love is a lot of damn work with, usually, little or no reward whatsoever.

Like those two masterpieces of romantic implosion, (500) Days of Summer begins with the break-up, which is helpfully slugged, "Day (290)". Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a complete wreck, because the girl he's been seeing, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) has just called things off over a dinner of pancakes and sausages, cheerfully invoking the dreaded "Let's still be friends". His two closest guy pals and his little sister (Chloe Moretz) are on hand to help him keep it together long enough that he can launch into a miserable recollection of all the good times he and his lady-love had shared, starting with Day (1), when he spotted her on her first day as his boss's assistant at a Los Angeles greeting card company, skipping around from moment to moment in no kind of regular chronological order. Eventually, the film catches up with the break-up and passes it, but the road to Day (500) is a twisty one, stuck firmly inside Tom's agony, moving from one happy milestone to another and only occasionally slipping over to the bad moments (which, we can be certain, were far more numerous than Tom allows us to see) that led up to that terrible moment of separation. All along, a calm narrator, who begins by informing us that this is not a love story (of course it is, for it is about love; that it does not end happily for the male romantic lead is incidental), drily makes notes about Tom's mental state at various moments throughout his history; perhaps he is the voice of Tom's better judgment, pointing out that things were not as he perceived them to be.

Noting what (500) Days of Summer is not is a particularly valuable thing to do, because it would be very easy to mistake it for being something other than what it is. A quick scan of the negative reviews of the film reveals a repeated refrain: this is the latest in a long line of quirky indie rom-coms with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and hipster-friendly soundtrack that traffics in all sorts of Sundance clichés et cetera. All of these negative reviews make the same assumption that the film's presumptively young male audience is likely to make, and to therefore miss the point completely. Tom is not the hero of the movie, but merely the protagonist, and to not notice that his views on romance, which the film only provisionally adopts since all of the action is being shown from his point of view, are completely pathetic and contrary to reality is to watch a different movie entirely than the one I saw. Tom is a dupe; Tom is a fool; Tom is a sweet Romantic but hardly to be respected for that reason. He wants love to be like it is in the movies, and so he views everything, from his bonding with Summer over The Smiths to his recollection of only the quirkiest moments of their relationship (goofing around in IKEA, drawing on her arm with a marker, that kind of thing) is very much a result of that wholly limited perspective. Summer herself lacks any kind of real depth not because the filmmakers think women are that way, but because Tom does. He assumes that he can make her into someone that she fundamentally is not, even though she has been the most damnably dangerous thing possible: completely honest with him about her expectations and intentions.

Really, the movie is not trying to hide this fact. Practically from its opening moments, the narrator mentions that Tom's worldview is based on a misreading of The Graduate: another movie with a hopelessly pathetic male lead who is easily mistaken as a sympathetic figure. From that proclamation to understanding why so much of Summer, contrary to its stated intentions, looks so much like a Sundance indie comedy... this is Film Analysis 101 stuff. It is irony, although remarkably enough, irony that is being pressed into service of something that is achingly sincere. Perhaps this paradox is leading some people away from the movie. I can't really say.

At any rate, the rest of the film is as far from the likes of Garden State as something in this budget range could possibly be. This is a boundless, inventive film, with nearly every new scene introducing something else from the filmmakers' bag of references and tricks. Tom's memories taking the form of black-and-white 1960s Euro-art flicks; imagining the morning after he and Summer first have sex as a sprawling musical number set to a Hall & Oates song; split-screen contrasting his expectations with reality; none of it is completely original, perhaps, but I defy anyone to come up with a cleverer set of signifiers to elucidate the mind of a young man whose view of the world is not particularly revolutionary to begin with.

Ah, but the movie around him; it is, no, not revolutionary, but miraculous and playful, watching Tom flounder about like a lost child with a great deal of creativity. Webb does not quite shake off the jitters of being a first-time director, perhaps - there are too many compositions that feel a bit flat and stagey to just ignore them, for certain - but he makes up for it with ambition and fearlessness that would do honor to a filmmaker with ten times the experience. And for first-time writers, Neustadter and Weber craft something deliriously honest and well-observed, that hardly ever falls into cliché unless it is a cliché that we can all readily identify in life itself (I'd make an exception for the case of Tom's young sister; precocious children who know more about life and sex than all the adults around them are a long-tired trope).

Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are two actors who are pretty constantly reliable, so that it shouldn't come as any surprise that they're both tremendously effective in their roles. Deschanel perhaps more, as she's playing a character who is necessarily and deliberately given little definition, so that everything in Summer that makes her seem like a real human at all is thanks largely to the actress (an ironic thing, if you thing about it, given how little about Zooey Deschanel seems realistic and human in the first place). Neither of them asks for us to sympathise or love them; they both simply inhabit their characters and make them as real as any two lovers in a romantic comedy in many years have been.

Flat-out: this is the smartest film I've seen about romance in literally years, indie or studio, from any country. Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine are too easy to use as comparisons, but only because (500) Days of Summer really does tap into the same kind of merciless truth that they do: love is fun except for all the times it hurts, people expect things from love that are wildly inapprorpriate; all three films end with the borderline-nihilistic suggestion that the main characters have learned nothing from their experiences and are eager to make the same mistakes all over again. This is a love story, contra the narrator; but it is not a romantic comedy, for the reason that "comedy" implies an ending where everything is okay. Everything is not okay for Tom, not at all: he's just as doomed as the rest of us to a life that steadfastly refuses to align properly with Disney musicals and quirky movies about magical women who make everything better.