Movie Review: 500 Days of Summer, Take 1

500 Days of Summer. Starring Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Clark Gregg. Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. Directed by Marc Webb.Within the past few years especially, independent films have developed a certain easily identifiable “indie charm,” and 500 Days of Summer most definitely fulfills the criteria. These films used to be termed “independent” due to budget constraints, but just like the big studio films, indie movies have essentially become marketable, targeting a very specific audience to the point that indie elements have basically become indie clichés:

amazing alterna-soundtrack? check.
(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.

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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 be defending 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, and I 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.

500 Days of Summer could’ve (and should’ve) found a way to avoid that.

Yet at the end 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.

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Check out some insightful reviews here, here, here, and here.


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13907906337395426767 Daniel

    Let’s not forget the ridiculousness of the scene in Garden State when it’s raining and they visit that giant hole in the ground, with the boat and construction equipment. That whole situation has “indie” written all over it. And Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist has a poster that looks exactly like Juno. The whole pencil sketch madness is really annoying. Thanks for making this rage bubble up inside me once again.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17745691711567675960 Stephanie R

    Anytime!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11807810552244692257 Travis

    I didn’t really find it so distracting that Summer wasn’t focused on. From a directing/screenplay standpoint, it was obvious that the story was from Tom’s point of view and I think it was a fair look, too: you feel for Tom, feel along with him, get mad at Summer, but by the end, you know (as well as he does) that she never did anything wrong and it was his hopeless romantic spirit (established from the very beginning) that got him into trouble.

    I didn’t really like the black and white “Summer’s parents divorced, so that’s why Summer doesn’t believe in love” and I still don’t know how I feel about the short engagement/marriage (my gf and I were trying to figure this out…three month engagement or so, maybe?).

    Good movie. You’re correct in saying that Summer was a “sidekick” but that’s not a bad thing. Do all romantic comedies have to show the side of both characters, utterly and completely? It’s like the difference between third person omniscient and third person limited in writing: is one inherently worse or more flawed a writing style than the other?

    Nice review!

  • http://mzbitca.wordpress.com/ mzbitca

    I haven’t seen the movie yet (just read tons of reviews) and I’m not defending that it’s anything but the usual fact of story-telling always from the male perspective.

    But..from what I’ve gathered is that TOM never sees her as anything but an extension of himself and what he wants her to be. We’re experiencing her from his point of view and experience which means we see her the way he sees her. What does this say about Tom? or what the writers think about how guys feel abou thte women they supposedly love? I’m not sure but I wonder if it’s true to life. Ive met guys like Tom (and girls) where they are more in love with the idea of you that you can spend a year with them and realize they don’t know you at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17745691711567675960 Stephanie R

    Thanks for your comments!

    Travis, I completely agree that the point of the movie was to show everything from Tom’s perspective, and that one could read it as an attempt to illustrate Tom’s naïveté when it comes to grown-up relationships. I wouldn’t have minded that so much if the audience didn’t identify with exclusively with Tom to the point that, as you suggest, we get mad at Summer. After all, why should we? She’s nothing but 100% honest with him from the get-go, and it’s ultimately his failure to understand her (or even attempt to understand her?) that leads to the breakup.

    And that marriage crap completely infuriated me. Really? We’re supposed to believe that this woman went immediately from “I don’t believe in love” to “hey look, I’m engaged!!!” …? Like I said in the review, the ending completely undercuts Summer’s independence and ultimately validates the dominant ideology that women want to settle down and have babies and live the American Dream—it’s just all about finding the right guy!

    And yeah, I do think it’s a bad thing, especially in this context, that Summer was relegated to sidekick status. She’s a much more complicated character than that, for at least the first half of the film, and I would’ve probably fallen completely in love with this movie had they allowed her to come to life. But if they’d done that, then they probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with the completely bullshit ending. :-)

    Mzbitca, totally. Yes. He’s a naïve romantic. And in turn, Summer is cast as a passive sidekick whose only characteristic we can really pinpoint is that she doesn’t believe in love. I guess my problem is that I didn’t leave the movie feeling like Tom merely didn’t understand Summer; I left feeling like I was supposed to identify with Tom, to really think Summer was cold and heartless and terrible. The ending only makes it worse because, suddenly, it’s no longer about her not believing in love, it’s about her not believing she could ever fall in love with Tom. And then: poor Tom. My main problem is that I never experienced a “poor Summer” moment, and with the way Tom basically turned her into an idealized version of The Perfect Woman, who he never bothered to get to know past “She likes The Smiths omg let’s date!” … the audience should’ve been given an opportunity to identify with her experience in their relationship. Instead, we’re made to either dislike her or simply not care about her …

  • Anonymous

    I liked this movie because it does defy rom-com expectations, but it kind of bothered me how it ends with Summer getting married to someone else and all dressed up in a way that doesn’t match her personality. Seemed contrived.

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