Words On Film: (500) Days of Summer.
Romantic comedies are built on narrative conventions, as are most other popular film genres, that make them greatly predictable. There will always be "The Meeting" and then "The Coupling" and then "The Conflict" (usually a misunderstanding exaggerated by melodrama) and finally, in most cases, "The Reunion." We come to count on this framework to guide us from the opening sequence to the final scenes that galvanize our feelings about love, relationships and that way in movies that everything "just works out." Rom-com remains a powerhouse genre for just that reason. We all, whether we'll admit it immediately or not, enjoy a controlled emotional roller coaster. The real roller coasters in life aren't fun because we don't know how or when the ride will end, but in the movies, we always have a two hour window to rely upon. And we always have that framework to expect the romance to work out just the way that makes us feel confident about trying again and again. The problem is that while we enjoy the emotional Xanax of a happy ending, we know damn well that the story rarely ends happily in real life. In fact, really, there is only one relationship that ever ends happily, and often it's the last one you have. So, by that logic, 99% of romances (give or take) are honestly, unabashedly, and realistically destined to fail. And that's not sad-sack bullshit, either, that's just numbers.
(500) Days of Summer tackles just that idea with true, heartfelt and honest writing, acting and narration. This is a film that ends its long exposition with a voiced-over, "This is not a love story..." It is also a film that tries to maintain an aura of hipster cool, but does so sparingly enough that nothing feels forced or too far over the top. For that we can thank director Mark Webb, who keeps the indie styling grounded in reality and human emotion instead of playing them up to extreme caricature. (Webb especially handles the film's temporal dancing - bounding from Day to Day/phase to phase - with ease, never misusing it and often effectively juxtaposing happy times with sad ones.) This is a film in which Zooey Deschanel's Summer makes a passing reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. And this is a film where the primary demonstration of romantic domesticity takes place in the sprawl of an IKEA. Creating an IKEA date as flawless, sweet and raw as the one Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom and Deschanel's Summer go on is microcosmic of the film's emotional genius. I've been on these dates. People do exist this way. Love IS this sprightly and cute.
And love also falls apart. Gordon-Levitt knows from their first meeting that Deschanel is the one. He is the hopeless romantic type whose love of The Smiths and The Graduate lead him to believe there's one perfect person destined to him. By contrast, Deschanel is presented as the unromantic type. She loves herself. And she is enigmatically magnetic. Men love her instantly, but ultimately there is nothing special about her. (A key point here because most of our loves, the ones we fall extremely hard for are not special, per se, but we exalt them, deify them even, and fixate on how much better than anyone's their laughs, and smiles, and little quirks are.) The pair finally converse at length at an office karaoke event, where Tom and Summer briefly argue the existence of Love (capital L). Tom believes in it, Summer does not.
Gordon-Levitt does an exceptional job of portraying a man stupid with love as Tom runs the gamut of emotions from the initial "ultimate happiness" to points of dread and depression so great that they are life altering. And Deschanel sells Summer's careful, distanced reciprocation beautifully, but even more so, she subtly shows the sadness inside a woman unsure of the love she has. It is clear that she and Tom are well matched, but a good match does not always breed the kind of love that sustains a romance. The heart of which is the sadness of miscommunication between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel because she is his one and only, and he is her conundrum. Life works that way. No matter how long we are with a person, you never really know how they feel because you can't be in their head, or in their heart. At one point late in the film Gordon-Levitt's Tom asks Summer, following a fight, (and I'll paraphrase) to tell him that she won't wake up someday and feel differently about him. And she answers, "I can't do that. No one can." And she's right. That's why love is exhilarating. It's a ride you take that has no guarantee, regardless of how much love you put into it.
The film shines in its climax and ending moments. And it's a bittersweet ending. Tom turns out to be right about love, about destiny, about having a one and only (and he was all along). And it turns out Summer does end up accepting that true love exists and doesn't run from destiny. The movie succeeds especially in the way that it taps your emotions, or at least for me, with the parallels I could easily draw to my own dating experience. (500) Days of Summer poignantly circumvents some of those Rom-com conventions, and falls into a just enough to make you think the ride is just like every other. It's not. But, then, the same goes for life, as we take rides as special as snowflakes that so often end in fiery crashes. Until finally there's the one that doesn't.
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