500 Days of Summer review
December 31, 2009
Unless you’re one of those lucky, possibly boring, people who meet the perfect match in grade 2, there will undoubtedly be a time when you’re in love with someone who isn’t in love with you.
Sometimes, at the easier end of the spectrum, they don’t know who you are. Sometimes they simply reject you, which at least provides some closure.
But the worst kind of Love is the one that isn’t quite there. You meet someone, fall deeply in love, actually have a relationship together… and then nothing, because it turns out most of the feelings were one-sided. It’s not that she didn’t love you, it’s just that she wasn’t in love with you, something was missing, the timing was off, she just wasn’t ready for a serious thing.
It’s this sort of love that forms the basis for (500) Days of Summer. Greeting Card Writer and Would-Be Architect Tom meets Perfect Girl Summer. Tom falls in love. Summer doesn’t quite. Things go poorly.
It’s not just Tom who’s in love with Summer: The entire film has a crush. The camera lingers on Zooey Deschanel, sometimes in synch with Tom’s loving descriptions and sometimes just for the heck of it. At times, Summer verges on becoming a prop. But then, a cynical observer could note that she’s just a prop in his life anyway – so much of their relationship is built up in his head that Summer barely even needs to show up for much of the film.
Summer is largely absent from the narrative: We never find out exactly why things aren’t as perfect for Summer as they are for Tom. On one level that works – people don’t always fully articulate why they’re not in love with you – but the film doesn’t make up for Summer’s silence. At one point, someone recommends to Tom that he think about his relationship with Summer and see if it really lives up to his memories, but Tom’s hindsight seems just as rosy. They talk about arguing a lot, but we rarely see them arguing. It’s something Eternal Sunshine did quite well, depicting the disintegration of a relationship and showcasing the venom that can only truly be shared by two people who used to be in love. Summer, unfortunately, skips over a few steps, going from Wonderful to Troubled to Over far too quickly.
So what do we make of Summer? She comes to town, shows an interest in Tom, and tells him she doesn’t want anything serious. He says he’s fine with that – stupid stupid stupid – and they proceed to have what would look like a relationship to the casual observer. On the one hand, she stated her terms and Tom accepted them; one could suggest he knew what he was getting into from the very start.
But while that’s true, Summer’s position isn’t entirely consistent: You can’t act like a regular couple 95% of the time and then insist you’re not looking for anything serious. Or at least, you can, but it makes you look like a bit of a jerk, expecting someone to act rationally about something it’s almost impossible to be rational about. Summer isn’t manipulative or evil in any way – she’s clearly affectionate towards Tom, and a part of her would like to feel the same way he does – but neither is it a particularly sympathetic position.
So on the whole, it’s just a Big Fucking Mess, and no one’s going to end up happy about it without drawing some sort of abstract moral from the situation.
About halfway through the film, Summer makes clear the tremendous influence of Annie Hall. You might not have noticed the similarity of the relationship film starting with the breakup (or at least a breakup), or the flashback-heavy structure, or the characters talking directly to the camera, but when Tom starts going to movies alone and imagining himself in Ingmar Bergman films, you know the people behind this movie are pretty big Woody Allen fans. Tom’s attempt to re-live his failed relationship with another woman is another standout moment, though there are no lobsters involved. (It also gains significant bonus points for making fun of the overuse of the word “literally”.)
The wonderful thing about Summer is how it shows the utter misery and despair love can cause when it doesn’t work out. Tom believed he was going to spend the rest of his life with the perfect woman, and that’s a long way to fall; when he hits bottom, his fall is broken by Twinkies, vodka, and seething bitterness. Joseph Gordon-Levitt pulls off the anger of a broken heart beautifully, stewing in equal measures of self-pity, hopelessness, and resentment of anyone who even thinks of looking vaguely satisfied with their life. This is a guy who thought he had it all figured out – aside from the job he hated – and saw it all fall apart for reasons he never understood.
It echoes the beleaguered and emotionally beaten John Cusack in Being John Malkovich when he tells his would-be lover who’s stolen his wife “This is what love looks like.”
“You picked the unrequited variety,” she tells him, and it’s totally true. This is Tom’s fault, the fallout of his too-brief flirtation with perfection. He almost knows it, almost admits it in a wonderful breakdown at the Greeting Card company that’s reminiscent of Cusack’s question in High Fidelity: “Did listening to pop music make me miserable, or did I listen to pop music because I was miserable?”
Like High Fidelity, music plays a huge role in Summer. Tom and Summer initially connect over The Smiths, which is probably a sign that things are not destined to go well. There’s karaoke – Gordon-Levitt’s “Here Comes Your Man” is quite entertaining – and browsing used record stores together. Tom is the sort of guy who subscribes, at least in part, to High Fidelity‘s philosophy that what you like is at least as important as what you are like; opposites may attract, but a love for the proper bands overrides everything.
Tom, of course, is destined for disappointment, on both levels: Summer eventually breaks up with him, but not before admitting she didn’t really listen to one of the CDs he made her. There are few things in life worse than a beautiful woman not fully appreciating the CD you agonized over for three days, selecting tracks, picking just the right order, then having to start over because you’re 15 seconds too long and there’s just no way you can leave off Lost in the Plot.
(I suppose it’s even worse if she doesn’t like your band. I could probably go on for a while comparing Summer and Scott Pilgrim, but this thing is already veering off track.)
But while the film suggests Summer may not have been perfect, we never really see it. A quietly sincere monologue by his best friend (Matthew Gray Gubler) highlighting the differences between his dream girl and his actual wife is the closest the film gets to separating reality from fantasy.
Except, that is, for The Party, a beautiful split-screen sequence that contrasts Tom’s expectations of a reunion with Summer with the harsh banality of reality, scored by the eccentrically lovely Regina Spektor. It’s a visceral punch in the stomach for anyone who’s ever scripted out an entire conversation in their head and seen it go off the rails in reality.
There are those who will watch 500 Days of Summer and think Tom is an idiot. There are others who will watch it and think Tom is an idiot and completely identify with him because they’ve done the same idiot things. There’s no happy ending to 500 Days of Summer, only a whirlwind of happiness and misery capped off with an ambiguous ending – maybe Tom has learned his lessons and found a bit of luck, but maybe he’s just going to do the same stupid things again. Like High Fidelity, those who like Summer will like it a lot; if you share Tom’s mindset, if his experiences seem all to0 familiar, you’ll be hooked from the very first scene.
If not… well, then you’ve probably had a very lucky life, are very happy, and I hate you.