500 Days of Summer neither captivated me nor bored me. It just sort of drifted listlessly forward, occasionally bumping into clichés, sometimes managing to subvert them, but mostly just letting the romantic comedy current carry it along. In many ways it shared the characteristics of its female lead – quirky enough to pique your interest, but without a great deal of substance beneath the carefree, offbeat exterior.
That isn’t to say the movie does not have its strong points. I am a sucker for non-linear editing, and this movie employed it admirably. The countdown clock that jumped back and forth showing us where exactly where we were in the timeline was a nice addition, and it helped to perfectly line up some of the film’s well-crafted echoes. The expectation/reality split screen is a particular creative touch, and one I expect to be both emulated and parodied by future works. Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel performed their roles well. And hey (minor spoiler alert) the fact that the main couple does not end up together – though it’s been done before – is almost always a plus in films trying to turn the romantic comedy formula on its head.
At the same time, much of this original or unusual framing in the film felt fairly gimmicky, without much substance to back it up. No, the movie did not follow the usual romantic comedy formula, but it didn’t truly innovate much either. It takes more than a dose of bittersweet and inventive editing to truly subvert the usual and expected when it comes to a boy-meets-girl story. Summer Finn may be “just a phase,” but she also feels like a walking trope adorned with a few shiny ornaments to distract you from that fact. The entire film seems aimed at picking out as many tricks as possible to cloak its fairly run-of-the-mill tale in the guise of something greater.
To wit, 500 Days of Summer overflowed with such a strenuous faux-indie vibe. Zooey Deschanel’s wardrobe seemed as though Urban Outfitters had a head on collision with a bluebonnet patch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt came with his vests, his anorexic ties, and his embrace of vinyl. In truth, I love the soundtrack, but Regina Spektor, Belle & Sebastian, and even The Smiths feel as much like stereotypes as they do an organic part of the movie. Palling around in an IKEA didn’t seem effervescently eccentric to me; it felt outrageously forced. The prevailing criticism of hipsters is that they’re a group who put obscene amounts of effort into seeming like they don’t care. 500 Days of Summer is a film that clearly evokes a hipster sensibility, and finds itself falling into that same pitfall of trying too hard to be effortless.
But what struck me about it the most is the extent to which a movie that felt like it was trying so hard to be unusual and different and yet also felt so damn cliché. Tom’s drunken blind date where he can talk of nothing but his ex would have felt right at home in the latest CBS sitcom about twenty-somethings finding love in the big city. A couple ruminating on a park bench, or a fistfight with a drunken suitor at bar, or heaven forbid, a lover showing up on your doorstep the morning after a big fight, could all have been pulled from the latest Hugh Grant romcom. The idiosyncratic woman who drifts into the quiet protagonist’s life, gets him to cast off the shackles of his humdrum world, and makes him see the wonders of life is well-trodden ground in cinema in the form of the widely-recognized Magic Pixie Dream Girl. The film hits these marks well enough, but for a film credited as such a refreshing take on the romantic comedy, it’s still very apt to fall into the old routine.
The film’s apparent message does manage to strike a different tone. The torrid love affairs that become the stuff of romantic comedy legend are often, in the real world, a mere fantasy in the minds of one of the participants, not a mutual, unassailable love. Yet, the film stumbles along before making it to this point. The message is less of a slow build to a subtle realization than a boatload of style with a quick reminder to add some substance before the credits roll. Not to mention the fact that the film’s ending (all I need to say is “Autumn”) is as trite as any you’ll find in a more conventional love story. It’s not an epiphany; it’s too little, too late.
It’s hard not to compare the film to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” another unconventional romance film, featuring a non-linear look at the rise and fall of relationship between a quirky woman and a quiet, brooding male protagonist. Despite the fact that Eternal Sunshine had much more of a science fiction twist, it was also a much more realistic than 500 Days of Summer. The quick creation and steady destruction of a romance proved much more genuine, with higher, more intimate highs and lower, more heartbreaking lows. Both made good use of their idiosyncrasies, but Eternal Sunshine managed to make us believe not only in the early swoons and the later implosion, but also in the quiet moments in between. The darker, melancholy tone supplied by Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry certainly helped, but Eternal Sunshine simply managed to plumb the depths where films like this one can only skim the surface.
Case in point, 500 Days of Summer just left me wanting something more, something meatier, something more real and substantial. If, as the audio commentaries suggest (another spoiler alert), the final conversation between the couple is all in Tom’s head, then why the change of heart? Why go from zero to lifetime commitment in a matter of months? Perhaps that’s the point – the audience is supposed to share Tom’s sense of the senselessness of all of these questions without clear answers, but in the end it just closes out the film on an unsatisfying note.
The only other thought I have is that maybe I am just not in the right target audience. 500 Days of Summer may simply be unable to speak to me as a twenty-something in a happy, loving relationship in the same way that Eternal Sunshine spoke to me as a heartbroken teenager. There is some wisdom that rises above the level of a fortune cookie. There’s a healthy portion of off-kilter fun – the morning after musical number comes to mind. There’s even occasional flashes of poignancy in this film. That said, these scenes and the entire mood of the film speak much more forcefully to the people imagining and looking forward to these experiences on the horizon, rather than to the individuals who have already been through them. 500 Days of Summer, somewhat ironically, offers a romanticized view of a love destined to fail. The film’s goals are admirable, and it has its moments of striking creativity or simple cuteness, but ultimately, it simply falls short.