500 Days of Summer or 500 Error?

Recently, a smart friend of mine recommended that I watch "500 Days of Summer," as it is one of her favorite movies. I'm not one to take these recommendations lightly, so naturally, I popped "500 Days" into my Netflix queue.

I can't say that I loved the movie as much as she did, but I am pretty moved by it nonetheless. It is an extremely meticulous movie, well written by people who have an eye for character and deeply-felt life experiences. It is well composed, beautifully edited, and has two wonderful acting jobs by the leads (and Zooey Deschanel just chews scenery with her quirky, but completely endearing clear gazes punctuated by off-center delivery of lines). Unfortunately, this movie doesn't quite get to where it should because of "the flaw."

I should start this analysis by saying that my main criticism really does provide a contrast against which it should be clear just how much this startling movie gets right. "The flaw" is one that Hollywood commits over and over, and is best demonstrated in one small detail--the voiceover. Like "American Beauty," voiceovers are employed to help the audience get a sense of coherence and movement through a story. In "American Beauty," the voiceover also reassures viewers that what they are seeing isn't really as weird or disturbing as what they might believe. After all, if you want people to feel O.K. about the murder of the protagonist, have him reassuringly let the audience know he is still speaking to them from beyond the grave and is feeling very enlightened, thankyouverymuch. Similar to the voiceover in "American Beauty," the "500 Days" voice near the very end of the movie reassures the audience that the protagonist, Tom Hansen, has not had his boyish sense of romantic grandeur crushed by the flighty and somewhat callously-portrayed, Summer Finn. The final scene where Tom completes his journey as both an artist/architect and comes of age (kind of making this both a bildungsroman and a künstlerroman) shows Tom waiting for an interview smartly dressed, and then meeting his main competition for a job, a young professional who he seems to share an attraction with. Tom introduces himself to his competition with a bit of sharpness and some humor. Realizing that she is similarly talented, he wishes her bad luck with a wry smile ("I hope you don't get the job"). The competition, attractive and similarly well-dressed and coiffed wishes him the same. By this point in the film, Tom has clearly changed. Gone are the days where he falls in love with the administrative assistant at a company he clearly feels beneath his talents. Instead, he is rising to the challenge, and isn't going to let a dalliance sidetrack him. As Tom responds to his call into the interview, his slow-motion walk gets a voiceover treatment that lets the audience know that Tom is no longer a romantic, and that his notions of a universe that partners off people has been replaced with an almost-nihilistic randomness. Of course, the punchline is that Tom runs back before he squanders his opportunity to connect with this young woman and asks his gladiatorial nemises out on a coffee date. His professional (and likely romantic) equal, Autumn, agrees to see him after the interview. He has not lost his romantic notions. Tom is ever young at heart.

This all sounds reasonable enough, except the voiceover contradicts what we see develop throughout the film. Despite an undercurrent of villifying the eponymous character, Summer Finn, throughout the movie and the fact that Tom is clearly the protagonist in this film, Summer is a well-developed, central, sympathetic character. We see Tom and Summer introduced in parallel manners at the beginning, understand that their conflict defines the scope of the narrative, and see them both change and grow by the end of the film. We know much more about Tom: his job, his friends, and even his philosophy on life. Moreover, we see the story from Tom's perspective--including some incredibly funny and poignant sequences. The musical number where Tom dances to work "the morning after" rates up there (and I think tops) with the "Shake it up Baby" sequence in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The sideshadowed sequence during the party where Tom unwittingly finds out about Summer's impending wedding to another man is achingly poignant. These wonderfully detailed, and completely heterodox combinations of scenes are impressively knit together in one movie. Further, I can completely identify with the protagonist, who has to learn painfully that love does not always end with a wedding, that one must create in interesting life to attract interesting people, and that seeing the world as it can be seldom overcomes the world as it is. Tom is essentially alone when trying to make these discoveries, as his friends are either hopelessly inept at relationships (McKenzie), or have been coupled with a life partner since a very young age (Paul), or lead impossibly perfect and inaccessible romantic lives (Vance). Sounds reasonable again, but there is the second problem. Tom isn't alone. He has Summer.

The fact that the movie seems to occlude Summer as a co-protagonist (cotagonist?) contradicts the central role she plays as both mentor and mentee. The climax of the film occurs right after Tom makes the discovery that Summer "never wanted to be (someone's) girlfriend. Now (she's) going to be someone else's wife." It isn't until he picks himself up out of his childish and safe assumptions about love and life that he can understand just how much Summer has taught him. During their long and torturous relationship, Tom struggles to make Summer into the person he imagines as his soul mate. He wants Summer to be little more than a mirror of his future self--a reticent beauty with luminous eyes Tom wants Summer to see him as a desirable and fully grown up man, despite his arrested development as an architect and human being. Even after the relationship with Summer has dissolved, Tom holds on to hope that he can somehow make it work. The clever anti-linear plot allows the audience to see Tom as less psychotic than they might otherwise. We don't have to see him pining incessantly, a la Groundhog Day, where the infinite return to self-pity and continual re-courting of a clearly uninterested Andie MacDowell comes off as more than a bit insane. Rather, we learn early on that this relationship has ended, and we get to see both the sympathetic Tom--with a vivid and funny way of turning small details into a grand narrative--and the dark and stormy Tom.

Tom's habit of seeing the world as it could be overwhelms clear markers placed by Summer (letting him know that she doesn't want a serious relationship, not entertaining false nostalgia when the relationship has turned stale for her) and obscures the important role she plays in Tom's life (and the important role Tom plays in her life). During the climactic scene, Summer returns to Tom's favorite spot, a small park overlooking an architecturally interesting part of Los Angeles that Tom used to frequent both before Summer and with Summer. She returns to the park to clear the air with Tom, and to let him know that he has taught her something. Summer meets the almost grown-up and more assured Tom and shares with him the way that he allowed her to see future possibilities with a partner (her introduction as a child of divorce sets up this sympathetic possibility in which her rebuffs are at least partly a product of a damaged childhood). Summer assures Tom that his vision and his eye for potential changed her, even as she admits that she was never felt sure about their relationship (a sense of assurance Tom helped Summer develop...with another man). Summer's admission that Tom helped her trust someone else releases him, and forces him to confront the grim fact that he is not, in fact, controlling his own destiny. She lets him in, but does not completely hand herself over to him. His vision of the perfect relationship is not unlike his vision of a perfectly-controlled landscape. The occasional parking lot, something necessary for the people that actually live in the buildings he fetishizes, are not really optional. Similarly, the wishes of the woman he is courting are a necessary, central part of what he should consider. Is isn't until Summer lets Tom know to his face that he was wrong about her, but not about life, that he finally understands that his journey isn't over, and that maybe he should listen a bit more openly to the wishes of the women he desires. This new and lighter touch generates the energy in the final scene, and shows that the 500 days were not a "500 error" where he could not find his desired destination. Instead, the 500 days were more like a long race, where the prize is not just won, but rather experienced as an endurance event shared with many, and closely with a select few.

Of course, the movie does a pretty good job of obscuring Summer's character, something that provides a good metonym for Hollywood's main flaw--ignoring story contours in order to fulfill what the industry sees as demands of the culture. As someone not privy to Hollywood's machinations, I can't pin blame on either studio executives, focus group testing, or the crafters of the movie (Robert Altman portrays this process of homogenization to great effect in "The Player"). Regardless of who is culpable, the flaw typically turns complicated and interesting stories into simple narratives that celebrate a white-male's triumph over an internal struggle (usually romantic). In short: "Man v. World" becomes "Nice Guy (TM) v Soul Crushing Woman." Yes, the protagonist's thwarted desires creates an achingly beautiful story (and one I can certainly relate to), but one that has been told countless times. The director and/or producers could have inflected away from his singular view with the footage they got (the split screens, handheld camera interviews, and fantasy sequences all lend themselves to questioning a singular narrative lens). Instead of including every scene that had a misogynistic epithet about women, foreground scenes that give Summer's details. Don't obscure the tender lines that Summer gives Tom with a deep-voiced narrator declaring that Summer's "walls are coming down." Why frame Summer's role as that of the dream crusher, with the narrator declaring that Tom no longer believes in fate (even though he clearly does)? I suspect it is the same kind of treatment that got focus grouped into "American Beauty." Cautious Hollywood executives may nervously believe that audiences want clear problems between Summer & Tom. Instead of two parallel characters, each with hopes and dreams for their work, love, and life, we end up with one character we root for and one caricature we sort of dislike. If they had pulled back the story frame just a bit and treated Summer with the light touch they brushed Tom with, it would have made the near-miss of these two ships all the more poignant. Connections are hard to make, even when there is chemistry and timing. Life is complicated. Hollywood should let these kinds of movies float out there with the beautiful ambiguity that emerges in the writing and the acting.

Go see this movie. It has a great soundtrack, some careful editing (despite the central flaw), solid acting, and some really fun scenes. If you have some grey in your outlook, this can also be a good date movie. Just don't expect to see this movie go as far as you hope. Like Tom, you won't really get to know Summer. You'll only see glimpses of her in-between the hamfisted pronouncements and the stylized and fun internal perceptions. Still, meeting Tom and Summer are worth it if you spend time to think about the small details.


Chelsea said...

I'll have to think about your analysis for a little while, though my inclination is to completely agree. I LOVE Zooey Deschanel and I LOVE LOVED the soundtrack. In fact, I think it's one of the movies that would have bombed or been drastically different without the specific songs that were chosen. In any case, great blog. Word.

Sport said...

Yes, films like 500 (300?) focus so hard (pun intended) on the male protag and lazily create a less than half-person as the female counterpoint. All of which leads to reification of male subjectivity as *the* subjectivity. Wearying.