As (500) Days of Summer begins, this, we are told by the narrator, “is not a love story.”
I hate to disagree right from the start, but let me tell you, that narrator’s a liar.
It’s true, (500) Days of Summer isn’t a love story in the conventional sense of the phrase nor does it want to be. In fact, if there’s a downside to this film, it’s how blatantly it revels in its own supposed unconventionality. Honestly, you give some guys a stack of French films to reference and let them run their scenes out of order and they think they’re geniuses or something. From its annoying parenthetical title (neither edgy nor meaningful, it just wants you to think it is) to its tongue-in-cheek coincidence-meets-fate ending, this is a movie that strives to make you believe that it’s breathtakingly original.
I’m sorry, but I can’t give it that. No one can. Don’t get me wrong, though. Just because it’s not the masterpiece of indie quirk it would like you to believe it is doesn’t mean this isn’t a good movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns out the kind of excellent performance I’ve come to expect from him and Zooey Deschanel is… well, she’s Zooey Deschanel, the darling of the precise set at which this movie is aimed and with reason. It just isn’t the movie it claims to be.
And that’s probably why I loved it.
(500) Days of Summer is the story of Tom Hansen, a greeting card message writer who wants to be an architect, just not badly enough to do anything about it, and of Summer Finn, the wry, sardonic beauty who steals his heart and would like desperately to return it. From the beginning, we know this is going to end badly, but truthfully, no one needs a narrator to figure out this romance is doomed from the start. See, Tom is a prime example of that most awful breed of man — no, he’s neither dictator nor frat boy nor serial killer. Frankly, Tom hasn’t got the drive it takes to be the first or the last. No, Tom Hansen’s a Nice Guy. You know the type. He’s a sweet guy, who thinks that his being reasonably intelligent and kind — the sort of guy who wants to make Los Angeles not only beautiful but eco-friendly, who hangs out with his little sister — means that he deserves some kind of special prize (Zooey Deschanel). He spends his days waiting for the perfect one to walk in. Why doesn’t some beautiful woman love him? He’s a nice guy. And yeah, I’ll give him that. The trouble is, Tom’s nice, but he’s nothing special and he’s ready to blame all his troubles on someone — anyone — but himself.
And because Summer doesn’t talk to him at first, when she’s still new to the job, because she isn’t falling all over him by day three, he and his buddies decide she’s a bitch, a whore, a skank with a superiority complex. When she says she doesn’t want a serious relationship and she doesn’t believe in love, Tom’s friend asks if she’s a lesbian. And when she explains that no, she just wants to be casual and have fun while she’s young, he exclaims that she’s a dude. All these boxes and labels she has to fit into — why can’t she just be Summer?
Well, because Tom wants her to stand in for the ideal she so obviously isn’t.
There’s been a lot of talk in reviews about Summer being a paper-thin character, and I think it’s a mistake to say that. We know who Summer is and why she is that way; it just takes a little more intuition and reasoning to get there, because unlike Tom, she’s not about to spill her heart to the first who comes along. Tom just treats her like she’s paper-thin. There’s a difference. It’s Deschanel, though, with her ability to convey heartbreak and hesitation in the most understated of ways who wins hearts; it’s twelve-year-old Chloe Moretz who saves the film as Rachel Hansen, who is easily wiser by far than her older brother. It’s the women of (500) Days, who are undoubtedly supposed to be comic pieces or transferable visions, who give the movie a good dose of sense and ground it in honesty. This is not to undervalue the performance Gordon-Levitt gives. He’s excellent in the role. I’m just pretty sure that if it was all about Tom’s sense of entitlement, I probably would have had to leave halfway through to, you know, throw up.
It’s no secret that Tom is the one we’re supposed to indentify with and love. This movie belongs to him. It’s his heartache we’re meant to believe and everything is seen through his personal lense, from the rapture with which he views the world after he and Summer first sleep together to the movie’s very set up. Even the order of time is in Tom’s control. For some people, this undoubtedly works. Fictional guys aren’t the only ones I’ve heard call Summer a bitch.
Yet from the very beginning, Summer is upfront about what she wants and needs. She never lies about who she is. She never pretends to be anything else. It’s Tom who hides his true intentions, hoping that, by some miracle or through fervent denial, Summer might yet transform into the woman he thinks he loves. There’s something empowering about the fact that this film, so like Tom himself in its attempt to convince you of what a terrible person Summer is and how deeply wronged Tom has been, only succeeds in illustrating just why Summer had to leave him.
In the end, Summer’s love is purer and truer than Tom’s ever could be. She turns up in Tom’s life after months of silence, in love, engaged, soon married to a man who has no name. And why should he have one? Tom doesn’t care who he is and this is Tom’s movie. Yet in marrying this man, Summer shows the greatest of faith — a willingness to dive headfirst, heart open, into something she had previously thought wholly mythical. Tom loves only the canvas Summer provides; what he loves is a shadow of himself, one he resents for not following him as unquestioningly and endlessly as shadows should.
This is not a love story, the narrator says, but he lies. It is absolutely a love story. In fact, the movie is nothing so much as a love letter from Tom to himself, with the mix CD he burned to accompany it tucked inside.
(500) Days of Summer is a beautiful movie. It’s gorgeously filmed in a way that makes even Los Angeles look good, it’s wonderfully acted by some talented people and the writing hits home throughout, plain-spoken and honest and aching. It’s a love story in the ways that count, in its ability to tell the story that happens more than the golden illusion the big screen so often cherishes (one more thing for Tom to blame for his downfall). It just isn’t the movie it thinks it is, anymore than Summer’s the girl Tom thought she was. Maybe, just maybe, it’s something better than that petty dream.