“(500) (excruciating) Days of Summer”

Poster for (500) Days of Summer

Poster for (500) Days of Summer

Note: The following post about (500) Days of Summer and why I was not charmed by it contains spoilers. I will also adhere to a list-like format for the sake of brevity. However, if you wanna read it as some dig against the sleeper rom-com’s indexical use of number-play, texts are bendy.

It was hard to go into the screening for this movie objectively. I had some misgivings about this movie that I catalogued prior to attending a Saturday matinee screening. They are as follows:

1. The preview is really fucking twee.
2. The oft-mentioned post-coital musical number, complete with marching band, animated bird, and ironic use of Hall and Oates’s great but over-used “Dreams Come True.”

Still from the dance sequence; image courtesy of paisleypetunia.com

Still from the dance sequence; image courtesy of paisleypetunia.com

3. A friend mentioned that Gordon-Levitt’s character moves on from Summer with a girl named Autumn. Seriously.
4. Same friend made quite the indictment on race and whiteness.
5. The “vintage” clothes — while Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are in adorable outfits, they seem less vintage than Anthropologie‘s upper-middle-class version of vintage. Everything is so tidy and worn once and unlived in. It just made me miss my friend Kit, who almost exclusively wears amazing thrift-store dresses (many of which I know she’s worn multiple times). Her look is much more comfort-based and much less polished. I think I would’ve responded to the outfits if there were at least one loose thread or frayed cuff, especially since Summer is probably not cashing fat checks as a personal assistant to the head of a greeting card company. Sigh. I know; it’s a movie.

But my big problem going in was the self-conscious music geekery. Examples:

1. Gordon-Levitt wears the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” Joy Division t-shirt in one scene. GET IT? Ugh. Such an obvious visual joke. I think if there’s gonna be a music geek dramatic irony t-shirt joke, maybe having him wear a My Bloody Valentine t-shirt would have been better. But is there really a need?

Still of Gordon-Levitt wearing an in-joke

Still of Gordon-Levitt wearing an in-joke

2. A friend said that Summer quotes a Belle and Sebastian song in her high school yearbook. Blech.
3. When they break up, Summer casts her and Tom as Sid and Nancy, respectively. Ain’t nothin’ skid row about these two.

In addition, I tend to have misgivings about movies and TV shows that make music geekery — and its quirky application — so central to informing characterization and narrative (see also Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Flight of the Conchords). It might be contrarian, but I feel instantly resistant to these kinds of texts because I feel like I’m supposed to like them because of the music geekery. But I need more than that. While I enjoy movies like Adventureland and High Fidelity (among others like Velvet Goldmine, Times Square, Dazed and Confused, and recently Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the music geekery is actually most interesting in the peripheral.

As an aside: it seems the people of my acquaintance who have the most vitriol toward this movie are also the most personally invested in music culture. They’re also pretty cool, but wouldn’t describe themselves as such. This perhaps gestures toward how pejorative and subjective the word “hipster” has become within my generation.

To stay positive, three things about the movie made me hopeful anyway:

1. The leads are appealing.
2. Summer doesn’t want to be in a relationship.
3. Apparently director Marc Webb made iPod playlists for the leads for each scene to help get them into character. This is interesting to me, especially read alongside playlist auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson, who use music to create scenes and develop characters.

With that said, I hated this movie. So much so that I was relieved that I saw it for free. 

I was pretty turned off from the start. Principally because the trailer and the opening sequence stress that this is not a love story. But that’s a lie. It’s completely a love story. It’s just not between Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Deschanel’s Summer. It’s between first-time feature director Webb and first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and how goddamn clever they can be. Just how goddamn clever?

1. There is a marching band and a girl named Autumn.
2. There is a black and white French film that plays in the middle of the movie that turns into Tom’s life story as he sees it. I think they’re going for Godard here, but in my limited knowledge of Godard, this seems too cheap for him. He seems like the type who’d have celebrity culture gatecrash into real life, not have real life imitate a French film.
3. Summer and Tom like to have dates in Ikea, playing house in the showrooms. I will overread this as a Pavement reference.

And then there’s icky touches of whimsy that feel forced and disingenuous. Being cute and fanciful is tricky business, mainly because being charming on camera has to seem effortless. The exemplar for me is Jack Lemmon straining pasta with a tennis racket in The Apartment. Here are a few examples that miss the mark:

1. This movie has a narrator (who, as my friend Karin astutely pointed out, is far from omniscient or objective — he’s basically there to align the audience to Tom). In general, I hate movie narration. It reminds me of what I learned from “Charlie Kaufman” in Adaptation. With some exceptions, narration is profoundly lazy storytelling and filmmaking.
2. Tom has a blackboard covering an entire wall of his bedroom. So he can be close to his true passion. Drawing buildings.
3. Summer is so much a fan of artist René Magritte that she’s actually arranged a bowler hat and an apple on her coffee table.

Magrittes The Son of Man

Magritte's "The Son of Man"

4. Tom wants to be an architect, but is somehow saddled with a job at a greeting card company. To convince Tom of his true passion, Summer has him draw a landscape on her arm.
5. After Summer breaks up with Tom, he quits his job at the greeting card company after a rousing boardroom speech about how the industry feeds lies about romance to mankind. When he storms out, his wiseacre friend does the slow clap. (Aside: I actually predicted this by starting my own clap about five seconds before actor Geoffrey Arend did it on screen – gold star for me!)

And then there are things that make no sense:

1. Summer and Tom first get to know each other at a karaoke bar. Summer does “Sugartime,” a delightful little tune from the late 1950s. Apparently she wanted to do “Born to Run,” but they didn’t have it. Then Tom does a rendition of “Here Comes Your Man” by The Pixies. What karaoke bar has The Pixies but doesn’t have any Bruce on hand? The Boss is who drunk people turn to when they don’t wanna sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” again.
2. It takes Tom twenty days or so to work toward his dream of becoming an architect. Primarily because he starts drawing and making lists on his blackboard and reading books at coffee shops.
3. Tom rags on Summer for liking Ringo best. Who doesn’t like Ringo?
4. This movie takes place in Los Angeles? Really? Locals and natives, help me out. I’ve been to your fine, sunny city several times. I’ve even been in the vicinity of where some scenes were shot. It never looked like New York to me.

And finally, there were four things that I found interesting, but did not think were well-executed. As they were related to issues of gender and age, these missed opportunities made me the saddest.

1. Summer really doesn’t want a relationship with Tom and stresses that from the very beginning. There’s mention of her parents divorcing when she was young, but I think she just wants to be alone and be independent and figure out what she wants in life (both maybe explain why she cries at the end of The Graduate before breaking up with Tom). I thought this was awesome. . . . At least I thought this until she gets married to some guy at the end for some reason.
2. The movie seems invested in making a commentary on how men objectify women, how movies abet that process, and how it results in men not really knowing the women they claim to love (I think Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep was trying to make a similar statement, and failed in my estimation for similar reasons). Tom’s “expectations vs. reality” split-screen sequence is made all the more poignant after the scenes where Tom (along with the camera and the editor) have cut Summer into fragments (her smile, her hair, her laugh, her eyes, her knees, etc.). Because, for all his obsession, Tom never really knows Summer. He may think he sees her everywhere, but he never really sees her. Instead, he sees creepy images like this one.

Summer through Toms eyes; image courtesy of 500days.com

Summer through Tom's eyes; image courtesy of 500days.com

3. Tom has a wise-beyond-her-years kid sister. Too bad she’s not really a person. A good precocious girl is my kryptonite (I love you, Linda Manz).
4. Summer isn’t really a person either. That’s too bad because I think Deschanel could have easily made her one and does fine with what she’s given (as does Gordon-Levitt). I also think this movie would have been more interesting if this sort of character was the protagonist.

Again, I think Summer’s lack of embodiment is part of the point — Tom wants Summer to be a manic pixie dream girl that can save him from his mediocre, humdrum existence, but she never performs as he thinks she should. Thus, Tom becomes obsessed with a woman he never actually knows.

But we, the audience, never really get to know her either, in part because the production personnel seem similarly vexed by her (as I think Tom is really just a stand-in for one of the screenwriters), but mainly because they are so bewitched by their words and camera tricks to give their characters any genuine motive or meaning.

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19 comments

  1. Annie Petersen

    So I think you’re right on with a lot of these critiques —
    ESPECIALLY THE ENDING, WHICH WAS SO RIDICULOUS. And infuriating. I would’ve loved for it to end on the park bench.

    I suppose my issue — or maybe just my initial hesitance to click on the link to this post — was that while I saw all of those regrettable things, for me, at least, they were redeemed by the two lead performances. The blackboard on the wall, the lack of Springsteen at the bar, the stupid non-person sister figure, I could forget them all, as I liked the leads so much. And yes, I did love Zooey Deschanel’s wardrobe — but that’s because I do shop at Anthropologie, and hey, what’s wrong with Anthropologie? Especially if you get all your stuff on sale? That’s who her character IS — the type of person to shop at Anthropologie. She’ll totally supplement with stuff found on SoCo, but she isn’t a thriftstore person. So that’s why her dresses aren’t frayed. I digress. I found myself enthralled by the fact that they would make a movie about a failed relationship that continues to be failed…and that highlights the way that misperception and convincing-yourself-of-love colors your vision of another person — but did it in a way that isn’t The Talented Mr. Ripley or Obsessed.

    And I can totally understand your annoyance with the music. But I did love the Carla Bruni in the car. And as for L.A. — I’ve read several reviews/pieces that speak to the way that the directors/writers/cinematographers wanted to offer an alternate view of L.A. (as in one without pollution). Offer the idea that it’s not filled with tan Paris Hiltons and swimming pools. What’s unfair about that? Would we be pissed if someone filmed in Austin and didn’t show the school, the capitol, Hyde Park, Barton Springs….? Or, conversely, if they just showed Burnet over and over again — as in Dazed and Confused? Or filmed on Chicon? Would we call foul and say ‘that isn’t Austin!”

  2. Annie Petersen

    Okay, got carried away on the ‘space’ issue and forgot to close with the idea that lead performances can redeem an otherwise crappy premise, even a crappy ending. See: The Notebook. Fastforwarding through the old people parts, getting away from the horrendous shot of ducks on the river, any amount of dialogue that doesn’t involve Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, and Joan Allen.

    It at least makes it so I don’t hate a movie. I mean, you could’ve seen G.I. Joe.

  3. Kit

    awesome. and I’m not just saying that for the shout-out.

    I love to hate movies like this and you already did all of the work for me – thank you!

    Also, I might add, Zoey Deschanel ruined the last episode of top chef masters with her vegan diet.

  4. Alaina

    My friend Annie posted this on Facebook… so that’s why I’m stalking you. The biggest turn-off for me was the characters’ meet cute over The Smiths. The Smiths!???! The only way people can meet cute over The Smiths is if they are 15 in 1996 and riddled with angst and think they are the only person who has ever discovered the Smiths. (That totally wasn’t me and my Mormon crush, I don’t know what you’re talking about.) No mid-twenty-year-old would think someone was unique because they liked The Smiths.

    Okay, that might be overkill on that one plot point… but I think it speaks to your idea that the main characters aren’t real people. Real people don’t choose not to be in a relationship because their parents got divorced. At least half of the everyone I know has divorced parents… and not one of them doesn’t want to date anyone, ever, because their parents broke up.

    What I took from the ending was that the reason she didn’t want to date him seriously is because she just wasn’t that into him. If you had inserted their story line in the place of Ginnifer Goodwin and Justin Long’s story line in He’s Just Not that Into You, it would have been perfect. Then they could have hung out in a movie filled ENTIRELY with not real people. Ha!

  5. c8ic8

    Okay, I’m outting myself here: I ENJOYED THE MOVIE. I don’t know if I’m just gaga over the Gordon-Levitt/Deschanel pairing or suckered in by the decent soundtrack/mise en scene, but I actually came out of the film feeling moved by it.

    And YET, I completely agree with every single one of your points. I was particularly annoyed that Summer went on to get married rather than merely stay single (it’s as if she must be totally unattainable for the Gordon-Levitt character to move on to another romance). I can identify with Summer to some degree–it’s oppressive to be someone’s ‘everything’, and I do feel that the film explores the dehumanizing aspects of romance, though it certainly doesn’t go far enough in dismantling them or giving its female character a voice, and perpetuates some of the very problematic narratives it claims to dismantle.

    Another reason I enjoyed it: I liked how it played with chronology. The ordering of events I felt was effective in replicating Gordon-Levitt’s character’s subjectivity. Again, this is problematic in that it priveleges the male character’s point-of-view, but I felt it did ultimately undermine some of the mystique by revealing more toward the end of the film.

    Anyway, I am not coming in defense of this film ideologically, but I think it’s important to be open about ways in which even a regressive text can be pleasurable. It’s definitely not a film I would whole-heartedly recommend, but it was a nice escapist Sunday matinee.

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  7. Laura

    I have to say, I really did enjoy the movie. But I’m also exactly who the movie is marketed towards.

    There were somethings that bothered me…that it was told entirely from the male perspective, including, as you said, the breaking up Summer into the pieces of her that he likes. It promotes societal standards of beauty (but what film doesn’t…). Summer’s point of view is never really expressed all the way, so sometimes she comes off as flaky and inconsiderate when I would have liked to get her perspective.

    But I did really like that Summer had a mind of her own and wasn’t afraid to express how she felt.

    Here’s my post on the matter: http://youngfeministadventures.blogspot.com/2009/08/500-days-of-summer-some-problems-but.html

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  9. Katherine

    Hey Alyx,
    I just wanted to say something about the self conscious music geekery in this movie that REALLY annoyed me. Possibly the main thing that ruined the movie for me, although I have to say I agree with the other stuff you wrote as well.

    Summer claims to be a Bruce Springsteen fan, so much so that she names her cat after him. And attempts to sing Born to Run at the bar. But she doesn’t believe in falling in love and she doesn’t believe in fate. Now I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan and I find it totally unconvincing that someone who loves Springsteen as much as she says she does doesn’t believe in love or fate. That’s pretty much all he sings about (in the earlier albums anyway)! Especially in the album Born to Run, that’s all about madly falling in love with someone and running away with them.

    So that really got me. Because they obviously just threw Bruce in there to make her seem somewhat obscure and kooky and yet they totally missed the point. If they are going to be music geeks, at least do it right.

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  11. Youssef

    Hey,

    First of all, I like your writing, you have a unique style that I can’t quite label, and I love it.

    Now, onto the movie. I fell in love with this movie. I know this movie better than I know my own family. I watch it when I’m sick, when I’m tired, when I’m bored, and most importantly, when I’m heartbroken. My friend told me about this movie after what could be called my first ‘real’ break-up. At that time, I couldn’t enjoy anything anymore, everything felt empty to me. That was until I watched this movie. As the plot and the relationship between the characters developed, that horrible sense of emptiness that had become part of me, faded away. This was because I could relate to every single thing Tom had gone through. Every scene in the movie had some level of significance to me. From the first time the couple held hands in IKEA, to Tom’s poetic work after the break-up (“Roses are red, Violets are blue, Fuck you whore.”) to even Tom constantly needing to get advice from his sister just so that he wouldn’t regret any decision made. I was impacted so strongly by this movie that some people in my school who I had never talked to before, already knew 1 thing about me. That I was that dude who really really loves (500) Days of Summer.

    I was shocked when I found out the movie had its… ‘haters’ if you will. But now I think I know why you did not enjoy this movie as much as I did, you watched it at the wrong time. I showed my brother this movie, and after the life-altering 90 minutes we had experienced, all he could say was “wow, you’re such a fruitcake, how can you like this movie?” My answer to him and all of you is that you need to watch it at a time where you can relate to Tom’s feelings.

    As to the hatred towards Tom’s little sister, the reason she seems so wise is because when you feel like Tom does, deeply in love, you do not act as smartly as you usually would. Anyone you talk to seems like they could tell you tips and advice on how to make the relationship better. I think this is why Tom loved talking to his sister so much, she could give good advice because her mind wasn’t head over heels for Summer, she was more rational.

    As to the ending of Summer marrying someone else, I think it was brilliantly done. The movie was trying to show how relationships sometimes just don’t work out. You can look for excuses all you want, but sometimes, shit happens. By having Summer marry someone else, it shows that there was no obvious problem with her and Tom’s relationship, it simply didn’t work out. It wasn’t because Summer wanted to be independent, it. just. didn’t. work. out. And just because it didn’t workout with Tom, it doesn’t mean it’ll never work out. So the ending of having Summer marrying an unknown character seems like the wise option to me, to show how love has a funny way of functioning.

    Some of you believe this movie has too many lame parts. Such as Tom dating a girl named Summer, then meeting a new girl called Autumn. However, when you watch this movie and go on the emotional ride, you don’t think of it as lame, you think of it as funny. Not laugh out loud funny, but it surely brought a smile to my face. During my ‘mourning period’ I watched tons of movies that were supposedly meant to make me feel better. None of them had the effect (500) Days of Summer did. It’s lame parts are what make it so great because those lame parts give it a unique aspect that make this movie so great and so helpful.

    Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but my tip to you is to not watch this movie until the right time. And that right time is after a break-up or whenever you feel emotional emptiness due to romantic failure. Believe me, it will heavily affect how you view this movie.

    • Tina

      I’m sooo glad I read this comment. Thank you so much. You nailed why I did enjoy this movie. It’s because at one point in my life I experienced the exact same thing. I did watch this movie for the first time recently and I will disagree with one point that you made. You CAN enjoy this movie just as much if you aren’t going through heartbreak, but you will appreciate it if you have ever experienced it some time in the past. For whatever reason, my three favorite parts of the movie are the Ikea part, the French movie part when he is by himself and they keep saying “Suffering” (had I watched that segment about 3 years ago, I would have probably been in better shape sooner!), and the Expectations Vs. Reality part. I thought it was beautifully done. I’m kind of shocked that this movie got negative criticism. I think it has so much heart and maybe it has obvious flaws that I wasn’t aware of, but I really truly love it. It brings a lot of joy to my life and movie collection. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to relate to a movie more to be honest. I’m so touched that this movie touched someone similarly. It makes me feel somewhat more sane.

  12. d

    Always makes me laugh that most woman hate every aspect of this film….probably because they see too much of summer in themselves

    • Alyx Vesey

      Oh, right. By this same logic, that explains why we hate our moms. I love my mom. I’m not fond of movies written and directed by men who project some quirky indie starletness onto their ex-girlfriends, which is what this movie is actually about.

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