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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.