(see also: Juno, Garden State, Away We Go)
—strangely cartoonish, bubbly-lettered and/or pencil-sketched movie poster? check.
(see also: Juno, Away We Go, Wes Anderson movies, Napoleon Dynamite)
—quirky female lead? check.
(see also: Juno, Garden State, The Royal Tenenbaums, Reality Bites, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
—at least one scene that occurs in a ridiculous location? check.
(see also: Juno [furniture on the lawn scenes], Away We Go [department store bathtub scene, trampoline scene, stripper pole scene], Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [most of the scenes])
—tortured love, tortured souls, tortured existences? check.
(see also: every indie film ever made)
For interesting reading about independent film clichés, coupled with a good review of Away We Go, read this.
Despite the fact that 500 Days of Summer is pretty much guilty of perpetuating all of the above indie clichés, I really liked it. Despite the completely conservative ending, I really liked it. Despite my two-week long depressive episode following my viewing of this film, alone, in a theater in Times Square, in the middle of the day, alone, I really liked it. And, for whatever reason, despite my initial ambivalence after leaving the theater, this movie managed to linger with me. Why?
Well, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for starters. The distilled plot: he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t believe in love, which leads to his inevitable heartbreak. I hated watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt get his heart stomped on by [insert quirky hipster female love interest] Zooey Deschanel! Joseph Gordon-Levitt starred in Mysterious Skin! And Brick! And Third Rock from the Sun!
We love him!
The truth is, though, while I enjoyed watching a romantic comedy that changed-up the genre by turning the leading man into a mushy, self-loathing disaster who attempts to accept the reality of unrequited love, I hated how much the film still turned the female lead into a sidekick. In traditional romantic comedies, problematic as they are, the films at the very least focus on the couple, and you get to know the characters individually (The Break-Up, Eternal Sunshine, etc) by watching their interactions and conflicts as a couple.
But in 500 Days of Summer, the plot unfolds exclusively through the perspective of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Tom. Zooey Deschanel’s character, Summer, (haha, get it?) exists merely as a vehicle to further the audience’s identification with Tom. We never learn much about her. She likes Ringo Starr. She likes The Smiths. She likes karaoke. She doesn’t believe in true love.
Thankfully, we also know that she identifies as an independent woman who refuses to be tied down. She might even identify as a feminist, though she never explicitly states that.
I loved one scene in particular where she gets angry with Tom because of some performative alpha-male attempt to “defend her honor” in a bar fight. He might bedefending himself a little too; after all, the initial punch happens after the other man says to Summer, “I can’t believe this guy is your boyfriend.” Harsh. But I would’ve loved the scene even more if it hadn’t been undercut by Summer showing up at Tom’s apartment later, soaking wet from the rain, to apologize for getting angry with him.
In fact, the biggest issue I take with this film is how often it undercuts Summer’s independence. The conclusion, which I won’t give away here, completely disappoints in that regard. Not only is it an easy, throwaway ending, but it doesn’t do justice to Summer’s independent-woman persona, and instead (and again), exists only as a plot point that encourages the audience to sympathize with Tom.
We barely know Summer, but why does the little bit we do know about her have to get unnecessarily lost in the end?
There are also no other important women characters. Tom occasionally solicits advice from his younger sister, who’s like, twelve, andI found it appropriately cute and indie-funny. And he goes on a blind date once, where he spends the entire time complaining to his date about Summer. (To the film’s credit, the woman he’s on the date with defends the shit out of Summer, rather than veering off into traditional rom-com female competitive-jealous territory.) Other than those few women though, it’s all about Tom.
However, if this movie can claim anything, it can claim inclusion of some seriously awesome meta shit. Movies within movies within movies, oh my! We get clips and parodies of The Graduate, Persona, and some other French films I didn’t recognize. And one can’t ignore the hilarious bursting-into-song scene, complete with full group-dance sequence and cartoon birds. The film also uses a style of storytelling that moves back-and-forth within time, and that works too, keeping the viewer slightly off-kilter and in the same headspace as its hero.
With all this film fun, you ask, then what’s my problem?
I think it has much to do with what I wanted for Summer. For her to go on being her quirky, independent-hipster self, unabashed and unapologetic. For her to never come across as potentially manipulative or dishonest, because she isn’t either of those things. And for the writers and/or director to have taken as much care in creating a 3-dimensional female lead as they did in creating a fully fleshed-out male lead who picks himself up, dusts himself off, and goes out and accomplishes shit.
They’re calling it a romantic comedy, after all. Even in the traditional “girl meets boy” then “boy breaks girl’s heart” then “boy realizes he really loves girl” then “boy and girl live happily ever after” bullshit, and its pointless variations, the male and female characters get mostly equal screen time. In cases where that might not happen, the audience at least comes to understand each of the characters’ motivations at some point.
(I’m by no means defending the rom-com, but at least in most female-driven rom-coms, like Pretty Woman and He’s Just Not That Into You, I know that I’ll have the pleasure of watching both of the characters one-dimensionally participate in a recreation of 1950s gender roles, ha.)
But in 500 Days of Summer—the female love interest exists, but she exists in the background as a supporting character, her main purpose being to help flesh out the hero. In turn, she becomes nothing more than an extension of him, just a quirky after-thought, another one of his personality traits.
Yet at theend of the day, despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t help but really like this “story about love.” It felt authentic, at least in its illustration of relationship conflicts, from the initial courtship phase to the inevitable dissolution. Deschanel maintains her complete adorability and Gordon-Levitt, well, we love him! Their on-screen chemistry, intermingled with all kinds of mopiness and feel-goodness and splashes of The Smiths and Regina Spektor … look, who cares about my criticisms? You should probably just go see this.
Check out some insightful reviewshere, here, here, and here.