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(500) Days of Summer (2009)
WARNING: SPOIILERS THAT WERE MEANT TO BE
Here’s how difficult it is to do a love story. “(500) Days of Summer” is one of the smarter, more original romantic comedies released in a while and yet it still reminds me of other love stories. The jumbled chronology, the attempt to remake a magical moment (“Our sink is broken”) and the bittersweet end all recall “Annie Hall.” The architect showing the girl his favorite buildings is like Sam Waterston in “Hannah and her Sisters.” The characters talking directly to the camera, documentary-style, about the time they fell in love, is reminiscent of “When Harry Met Sally”—which itself is reminiscent of “Annie Hall”—while the protagonist’s relationship with his overly mature little sister is straight out of the Holden/Phoebe School. A school that, let’s face it, should’ve closed a while ago.
But at least I was reminded of good stories. More, and to the film’s advantage, I was reminded of my own story—and to an uncomfortable degree. When I was young, like Tom Hansen, the greeting-card writer/architect played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I was short, sensitive, and somewhat passive, and I was once in love with a girl with long dark hair and wide eyes—a girl with whom the world seemed to be in love, too. A difference. 500 days, Tom? Piker.
The poster gives us fair warning. “This is not a love story,” it says. “This is a story about love.” So we expect the end but we still root against it. We want things to turn out right in art, as Alvy Singer says, because they rarely do in life. Also we’ve been conditioned by a million other movies: boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl again. How many times has Hollywood written that? “We sell lies,” Tom says of the greeting-card company he works for, New Hampshire Greetings, just before he quits, and he could be talking about Hollywood. He is talking about Hollywood. “What does that even mean—love?” he says. “And we’re responsible. I’m responsible. We do a bad thing here.” This movie is a corrective. It’s Hollywood’s latest mea culpa for feeding us the lies we want to believe in.
Theirs is an unremarkable relationship, isn’t it? Maybe that’s part of the mea culpa. The things Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) do together are the things city couples do together. They go to museums and mock the modern art; they go to IKEA and make jokes about living there; they go to art houses (“The Graduate”) and shop at hip record stores. They have a few memorable snatches of dialogue. “Nobody loves Ringo Starr,” he says. “That’s what I love about him,” she says.
They already feel bored. I’m sorry. Even at IKEA, a high point in their relationship, they feel heavy and unremarkable together. It’s not like the lobster scene in “Annie Hall,” which is memorable and funny. Maybe it’s because they’re shopping. We see Annie and Alvy cooking together, being together, while we see Tom and Summer shopping together. Shopping is not being.
What’s the most memorable thing they do as a couple? You remember Tom’s magical musical number, his dance with the world after they consummate their relationship; and you remember the world turning gray and dissolving after she breaks up with him. But what happens in between? IKEA? “The Graduate”? Ringo Starr? “Penis”? You could say nothing becomes their relationship like its breaking up.
The movie again offers the male perspective. I hate to keep referring to “Annie Hall.” It’s unfair but it is a compliment. You could say there are four tiers of contemporary movies: bad; good; good enough to compare to the best and found wanting; good enough to compare to the best and belong. “(500) Days” is third tier. Not bad. For some youngins not already steeped in “Annie Hall” it may even seem fourth tier. They’ll learn.
So one of the nice things about “Annie Hall” is that we get Annie Hall. She’s a real person. We see her clearly even as she develops, even as she changes. Maybe especially because she changes. The problem with Alvy is that he doesn’t change. His famous line about relationships being like a shark could be self-referential. A person has to keep moving forward or he dies, and Annie keeps moving forward and he doesn’t. Particularly when he tries to move backward in the second lobster scene.
But who’s Summer? She begins as an unknown and ends as an unknowable. Why does she do what she does? Why is she the way she is? The third-person narrator is no help, either. He tells us about him but not her. The movie buys into her beauty (spiking sales of Belle & Sebastian records; double-takes on the bus) and then implies it’s all in Tom’s head and heart. Tennyson had a better explanation: “Oh if she knew it/To know her beauty might half undo it.” She’s oblivious to her charms but not completely. Maybe she uses her obliviousness as armature—to keep the world out—and maybe that’s why the world keeps trying to get in. Or why Tom does. Or maybe she knows her obviousness is part of her charm and why she keeps using it.
The scene at her party is devastating—the true bookend to his magical dance number. Tom tries to tamp down his expectations but the film gives us both, expectations and reality, in a split-screen format. At first reality is a muted, humorous version of expectations; then it veers off slightly; but as soon as Tom sees her with the guy, obviously her boyfriend, and then showing off her engagement ring to another friend, the difference between expectation and reality isn’t funny anymore. The questions he asks her later at the park bench are the correct questions. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you dance with me if you were going out with someone else?” The unasked question is the question we keep asking: Who are you? Also: How could someone who pretends to care about me do the things you do?
Their relationship is framed by discussions of “the one,” the “meant to be,” the soulmate. He buys into it and she doesn’t. He’s the romantic and she isn’t. There’s a sweetness, I suppose, to the fact that, when she first meets her future husband, she thinks of Tom and their discussions. “You were right,” she tells him at the park bench. “It just wasn’t me you were right about.” Tom wins the argument but loses the girl.
After that scene, the last scene with the two of them, we keep following him but I’d rather follow her. What is she like in that relationship? What is she like now that she’s fallen? How does she differ from the way she acted with Tom? Him we know. He has to move on, as he does, with an impossibly good-looking girl named Autumn. Seasons change.
It’s a good movie. Third tier. It should be getting a wider release than it’s getting. Smart kids will like it. It’s not a lie but it is one-sided. Its omniscient narrator wasn’t so omniscient as to fathom girls.
July 29, 2009
© 2009 Erik Lundegaard