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500 Days of Summer


A slightly different version of the following review was originally posted on my tumblr in August 2010. Also, be warned that it contains spoilers.

There’s something really disappointing about disliking something you were convinced you were going to love, be it a movie, a book, or a new album by a favourite band. And in some cases, for reasons that I hope will become clear as this post progresses, there’s something really lonely about it too.

My issues with (500) Days of Summer go beyond the random sexist one-liners, the fact that it reinforces double standards, the manic pixie dream girl syndrome, or the fact that the story is told solely from a male perspective. I’ve seen the film criticised on all these grounds, and while I think they’re all very fair points, I won’t repeat them here because they’ve been written about extensively by people more knowledgeable and articulate than I am. A quick comment on that last point in particular: I think that yes, we do need more movies from the point of view of girls and women, and yes, the absence of their voices is a problem. But I think this is more of a problem with cinema as a whole than with each individual story told from the point of view of a man, if that makes sense. I could write a whole other post on this topic (ETA: and now I have!), though, so I’ll leave it alone for now. I just hope I don’t sound dismissive of people who get tired of only ever hearing the same old straight white male voices, because as I said, I really do think that’s a very valid point.

But anyway: this movie made me feel cheated in a way that no story had in a long, long time. Obviously the screenwriter sees the world very differently than I do, but that isn’t really a problem in itself, as I don’t need every story I’m exposed to reflect my exact set of values. The problem is that this is also a story that misrepresents and dismisses people like me; a story that only subverts tired old Hallmark clichés on the surface; a story that unforgivably reduces the world’s complexity and the myriad ways people approach romantic relationships to, once again, the same old clichés and stereotypes.

I’m going to assume that anyone who’s reading this has either seen the movie or read a quick synopsis, so I won’t go over the plot. (500) Days of Summer didn’t ever really strike me as an amazing movie, but until the final ten minutes or so, I thought that though it had some major issues I might still like it. All the way through I got mixed signs about how the narrative framed Summer’s position, but somehow I didn’t for a moment doubt that she was not going to be portrayed as a heartless monster in the end. So much for wishful thinking. In retrospect maybe I should have expected it, as the mixed signs and creepy moments really were abundant, but somehow I didn’t see the train wreck that was the ending coming at all.

I really don’t think Tom can rightfully accuse Summer of any wrongdoing – she was completely honest with him about the fact that she wasn’t looking for a serious commitment from the very beginning, and she trusted him to be an adult and actually mean it when he said he was okay with that. The story more or less acknowledges this several times, which was what I was hoping it would do, but then it blows it by presenting her as someone who, as Tom tells her in that cringeworthy final scene in the park, just “does whatever she wants”, with no regard whatsoever for other people’s feelings. This appalled me for several reasons, one of them being the fact that, as this post so well puts it, there are some serious sexual double standards at work here:
If Zooey Deschanel were actually a boy, and in this situation, most people would not perceive her as the problem. She wouldn’t be a monster, a whore, a freak; she’d just be a dude. And she’d get to complain about the clingy psycho bitch she fucked who’s now, like, putting all this pressure on, that bitch is fucking CRAZY, she just hooked up with the girl, she didn’t buy her an engagement ring, etc. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt, were he an actual girl, would be getting some sympathy from his lady friends, true, but he would also be getting well-meaning lectures about how Dudes Are Like That, and what did he expect, and he needs to be more cautious about these things and not put out so easily, and has he ever read a book called “He’s Just Not That Into You?” He should read that book. He would be told, to be blunt, that he was the real problem in this situation.
Then there’s also the fact that Tom’s huge entitlement issues are never properly addressed, and are in fact pretty much legitimatised by the ending of the movie. This is extra disappointing because there are so many scenes where the film almost acknowledges them; where it very nearly presents Tom as the huge jerk he often is, only to turn things around at the last moment and present him as the victim of a cruel and fickle pretty girl.

Summer never lied to him, and she doesn’t really owe him anything. No, people shouldn’t be careless with other people’s feelings, and yes, it's unfortunate that he wants more from the relationship than she does. It's unfortunate that their emotional needs and expectations are so mismatched and that he gets hurt, but she isn’t to blame for that. These things happen all the time. The fact that a girl doesn’t love him the way he wants to be loved does NOT make her a heartless monster, and it doesn’t mean she wronged him – just like it wouldn’t if he were a girl and she a guy. I just can’t wrap my mind around resenting people for not feeling about you as you wish they did. Feeling hurt, yes. Feeling lonely and miserable and rejected—of course. But the vicious resentment Tom so often expresses just makes no sense to me at all.

(Also, while I’m at it, why on earth did Summer apologise to Tom after getting mad at him for punching a guy who was hitting on her at a bar, supposedly to “protect” her? She didn’t ask to be protected, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw her apologise. What exactly did she do wrong? Does her mere existence mean that she’s to blame when Tom stupidly gets into a fight because of her, in a situation in which she was under no physical danger whatsoever and that she very clearly could handle on her own?)

Even more disappointing than that, though, is the way that the film’s final scenes completely undermine all the character development that took place until then. Summer is a girl who enjoys being independent and who isn’t looking for a serious relationship. This is unusual for a pop culture portrayal of a woman. And even more unusual is the fact that at first the story seems to frame this as – gasp! – a perfect valid position, as something worthy of respect. So far so good. But then Summer meets The One. In fact, before she even meets The One, we see her crying as she watches a wedding scene in a movie. Well, of course. The only possible reason why someone, especially a woman, would reject the dominant relationship model would be because she hasn’t met The Right Man yet. Deep down she’s aching for him and secretly dying to get married. Aren’t we all? As Summer tells Tom in the park in those disastrous final ten minutes of the film, once Prince Charming entered her life she realised that she had been wrong all along, while he, Tom, had been right. Yes, there is such a thing as a soul mate and true love. But the two of them weren’t each other’s soul mates, and that’s the real reason why things didn’t work out. It just wasn’t Meant To Be.

….

I swear, I felt like crying as I watched that scene. I can’t remember the last time a story disappointed me this much. I should tell you up front that I hate the idea of “true” love – the idea that we can only form one real connection in our lives; that we can only be happy with one specific person; that relationships don’t take any work, and if things don’t go well, it can only mean that your current partner is not The One. The whole myth irks me beyond belief. Much to my dismay, in the end (500) Days of Summer reinforces this myth, even as it appears to subvert it on the surface. But this still isn't what bothered me the most. As much as I hate this way of looking at romance, I fully respect people who believe those things, and I can very well see myself enjoying a story that included them if I felt that it came from an emotionally honest and resonant place.

What really got to me was the way the movie presented sceptics like Summer—or me. The subtext tells us that clearly anyone who’s uncomfortable with neatly labelling every relationship is cynical, bitter, immature, and will sooner or later realise that they’re wrong. Why couldn’t Summer have said all those things and meant them? Why did she have to change her mind so completely? You know, the movie could even have ended the as it did, with Summer getting married and Tom meeting someone new, if only it hadn’t framed those events the way it did. It’s perfectly possible that someone who never wanted to get married could meet a person who made them change their mind. That’s absolutely fine, but it doesn’t mean they were wrong before, or that their previous position was immature and silly. Sadly, those final scenes reduce the whole movie to this tired stereotype. The immature one grows up and settles down, and the romantic one is rewarded with Princess Charming. But look, the usual gender roles are inverted! How very original.

This makes me feel terribly lonely, but I suspect that that most people would think that my objections to the movie mean that I’m as cynical and immature as Summer was until she met The One, and that one day I too will grow up and learn better. The thing is, I’m not bitter in the least, and in fact couldn’t be happier in my love life. And no, obviously I shouldn't have to bring any of this up to justify my position - the way I feel wouldn't be any less valid even if I were coming from a place of anger and hurt. But because the ways in which the film disappointed me hae to do with my experiences, here it goes: I’ve been with my boyfriend (a word I’m not crazy about, by the way, but which I use for convenience’s sake) for six years and a half now. No, I don’t think he’s the only person in the world who could ever make me happy, and neither am I the only person out there for him. But we happened to have met and fallen in love, we enjoy each other’s company immensely, and so we choose to stay together and do our best to make sharing our lives with each other as pleasant as possible. Not believing that there’s any cosmic significance to our relationship doesn’t make us bitter, it doesn’t make it “casual” (whatever that means), it doesn’t make us cruel or careless with each other, and it doesn’t at all make us dismiss the concept of love. My boyfriend is one of the most important people in my life, but not because fate decided this would be so. It’s because of what we have built together, every day, for all the years that I’ve had him in my life. Being this close to someone takes daily work, and isn’t always easy, but it’s extremely precious for that very reason.

This brings me to yet another point I wanted to make: even if the movie had ended as I hoped it would, with an acknowledgement of Tom’s entitlement issues and both characters trying to make the best of things with the new people in their lives, I’d still have a problem with the fact that two very extreme positions are presented as the only ways to approach romantic relationships. I’m sorry, but real life is not a matter of either/or. You don’t either dismiss the whole idea of love or believe in soul mates. You’re not either a believer in fate and love at first sight, or a character from a Beckett play. There’s a middle ground somewhere in there, a middle ground I very happily inhabit, and I really wish the movie had acknowledged it. Not to do so is – I kind of hate this word because I’ve seen people who like to pat themselves on the back for being so clever use it one time too many, but I really can’t think of  another – inexcusably simplistic.

Even if I try to read the ending generously (not as an ending that reinforces the idea of fate, soul mates and true love at the exclusion of anything but loneliness and bleak bitterness, but rather as an ending meant to illustrate that it’s only human to behave foolishly and hastily when you’re in love), it still bothers me that it gives Tom a free pass for his jerkface behaviour, it still portrays Summer as callous and fickle because she hadn’t met her Prince yet, and it still completely fails to address the whole issue of entitlement. ARGH.

As NPR put it (and I can’t tell you how very, very comforting it was to read these words), “For all its rhetorical whimsy and hipster dressings, (500) Days of Summer is a thoroughly conservative affair, as culturally and romantically status quo as any Jennifer Aniston vehicle (…). Its vision of the sexes, human bonding and the workplace are laughably superficial.” That’s what it comes down to, really: apparently, deep down we all just want to get married, and if we dare conceive of relationships in a different mould, well, we just haven’t met our one true love yet.

I keep wondering if I shouldn’t generalise; if maybe I should simply see Tom and Summer as two flawed people, and think that their stories are not meant to be taken as universal illustrations of love. But sadly, the movie’s constant use of voiceover to make generalisations and drop aphorisms on The Nature of Love makes this reading kind of impossible, no matter how charitable I’m feeling. (Also, the tagline is “This is not a love story. This is a story about love”. I rest my case.)

I think I feel so strongly about this movie because it could have been good. If only it had left more room for nuance and complexity; if only it hadn’t been so dismissive of anything that falls outside a very limited way of looking at gender or romantic love. If only it had really subverted all those old clichés instead of beginning to do so but then giving up halfway through. The music was so wonderful, the cinematography was so beautiful, and the potential was very much there. But then the story had to go and completely STOMP on my heart. Dramatic as it sounds, watching it was really a painful and very lonely experience. It made me feel – me and my way of experiencing the world – dismissed and erased.

 (I'll finish this by saying that a lot of people I really respect [including John Green!] loved this film, and it goes without saying that I don't think any less of them because of it. At the time when I originally posted this on tumblr I had some interesting conversations about the film with friends who interpreted it differently, and I'm always open to doing that again.)
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