I'm Just Not That Into (500) Days of SummerComplications Ensue
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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Lisa and I rented this highly rated romantic comedy on iTunes, which was kind of neat. The movie itself we found oddly joyless.

* * * SPOILERS * * *

Like ANNIE HALL, this is a movie about two people who aren't, in the end, made for each other. No spoiler there -- the narrator tells you up front, "This is not a love story."

I like that the story unfolds non-linearly, jumping back and forth between the breakup and the couple getting to know each other, with a cute little gimmick showing how well the hero's life is going -- leaves on a tree for the "summer" of Tom's love for the heroine, whose name is Summer; no leaves for the "winter" of his love for Summer. Always nice when someone can bust up narrative structure and make it work.

And it's interesting to show a relationship that isn't clicking. Summer tells Tom up front that she doesn't want a committed relationship, and though she seems to enjoy his company a whole lot, she never changes that. He's convinced she's the One, so he ignores her ground rules, hoping she'll fall in love with him, and convincing himself that she is "letting him in," even though that's a long way from "I love you." But it doesn't work.

I wish I had found the execution of the concept more compelling. Tom isn't much of a catch. He's incapable of asking the girl out on a date until she actually kisses him. He acts petulantly when he's not getting the love he wants. He throws tantrums. He makes demands and runs away. I'm not rooting for him to get the girl. I'm rooting him for him to get over himself and grow up. I can't remember any of his lines. There is a cute sequence in an IKEA, but by and large he's so understated that I wasn't rooting for him to get the girl so much as grow a pair. Is that what girls find attractive these days?

Meanwhile, Summer isn't stunningly witty or clever, either. Yes, we all love Zooey Deschanel, but the actress didn't have a lot to work with. She comes across as a girl who's opaque, and so you think there's a hidden mystery to her, but there really isn't. She's just an ordinary girl with a shell around her ordinariness.

So yeah, I'm wondering why people loved the movie so much.

I liked the moment later on in the movie when Tom's sister Chloe busts him on his idealization of the relationship. "If you look back," she tells him, he'll see that she really was never the One. And there's a nice scene where we see how much Summer pulled away from him, doesn't laugh at his joke and won't take his hand, even during what he remembers as the happy part of the relationship.

I would have liked to have seen more done with that. I would have liked to have seen more of that up front -- without focusing on it, just little moments here and there where we're focused on Tom being happy, but in the corner of the screen, dark, out of focus, there's her hand avoiding his. So that, as the movie goes along, we're beginning to see how much Tom is making a relationship up in his head when there isn't one in real life. What does that look like? Summer telling him she's busy that night. Summer flaking out on a date.

That's what intrigued me about the concept: showing how a guy has a different relationship in his head than the one that we can see in front of us. And making more of a meal out of that.

I go back and forth about the two last act story turns. Of course Tom has an over-the-top meltdown and quits his job. Of course he goes back to his first love, architecture and, in a matter of onscreen minutes, he's interviewing all over the place. You knew that was going to happen by the end of the movie the moment he mentioned to Summer that he useta wanna be an architect but gave it up.

It's a bit weak, because it's just not that easy to get back into architecture when you were a failure five years ago and you've been writing greeting cards since then. And in 2009 when no architecture firm in LA is hiring. What takes the curse off it is that he's never shown succeeding. But we're meant to feel that he will.

And then, there's Summer getting married. It's clever that, just before the end, Tom is turned off of love, but Summer is in love -- they've switched roles. And it's true enough that most of the time a woman says "I'm not looking for a committed relationship," it means "I'm not looking for a committed relationship with you." A neighbor of ours was in a loosey-goosey relationship for something like 8 years, claiming he never wanted to get married. Then he started seeing his now-wife, and was married inside of a month.

On the other hand we are explicitly told up front that Summer, even before she met Tom, distrusted romance. She hasn't had a lot of relationships. She's wounded by her parents' divorce.

To me it felt like Summer getting married was a betrayal of the character. To me, it turned her from an interesting character to a generic one. From someone defined on her own terms -- an opaque girl who doesn't want to let anyone close -- to someone defined only by her relationship to Tom.

I think it might have been braver to leave Summer loose, available but not really catchable. What if she didn't really push him away? What if she was always willing to see him, and hang with him, and sleep with him, provided only that he never tries to pin her down. That would have made a harder decision for Tom. Yes, you can see Summer, but you'll never have her heart. Is that enough? At some point he'd have to make his own decision to pull away from her.

Instead, Summer makes all his decisions for him. She dumps him. She marries someone else. All he has to do is stop mourning her and get on with his life. That's not a hard decision to make, or shouldn't be.

I think you could have made a much stronger movie about a guy trying to create a relationship with a girl who really is not available for a relationship for anybody. That's what was so heartbreaking about CABARET: Sally Bowles is a wonderful girl to be with, but Brian can't really ever have her.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER is getting mad ratings on the IMDb, so I'm quite prepared to be told I'm all wrong. And a braver version might not have made $46 million gross international box office against a 7.5 million production budget. I'm just saying that I didn't fall for the movie. And I feel like I would have, if it had been a little better crafted.

What did you like about the movie? Did you ever really want Tom to get Summer? What did either Tom or Summer have going for them as characters? What were you rooting for to happen? What were you scared might happen?



I agree with you- this movie is receiving more accolades than I feel it deserves. Despite my love for the two leads and the interesting premise, it isn't actually a great movie. I really hated that Summer just suddenly got married in the end, it was completely against her character.

You should re-write this film with the focus on his idealized relationship and the subtle reminders of its failings. I like that better!

By Blogger Alex, at 5:24 PM  

You're wrong.

By Blogger DMc, at 8:01 PM  

I was with the movie until Summer betrayed her completely realistic philosophy about love. It was such a false note and the movie lost me when she got engaged.

By Blogger william, at 9:09 PM  

Actually Alex, the reason why this story works is because it smells like a true story. There was something real about the character Tom and even about Summer(even though you think she was thinly drawn).

You summed up Tom perfectly when you said this:"I wish I had found the execution of the concept more compelling. Tom isn't much of a catch. He's incapable of asking the girl out on a date until she actually kisses him. He acts petulantly when he's not getting the love he wants. He throws tantrums. He makes demands and runs away. I'm not rooting for him to get the girl. I'm rooting him for him to get over himself and grow up. I can't remember any of his lines. There is a cute sequence in an IKEA, but by and large he's so understated that I wasn't rooting for him to get the girl so much as grow a pair. Is that what girls find attractive these days?"

That is the hidden theme of the story. Tom is passive. Girls like Summer don't go for passive men who leave all the work up to her. Watch the film again and look for all the openings she gave him that he didn't seem to see. Check out the ikea scenes. Check out the karaoke night when he failed to kiss her or walk her home. There was even a time when he and his coworker friend decide what kind of girl she is because she didn't give one the time of day. It's like he has asperger's syndrome or something. Can't read people and super passive.

I don't agree that it was out of character for Summer to suddenly be in love. She was simply tired of making moves and uninterested in a man who didn't show any masculinity.The other guy simply walked up to her and chat her up. Any girl would find that flattering.

The overt story was that a guy was more romantic than a girl, but the real theme was that a guy was too passive to make any real move in life(be it career-wise or on a girl) but in the end he got it.

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 2:43 AM  

Well, I guess I'm like Tom and you're like Summer. I fell for the movie and you didn't. I think it's a simple as that.

While I understand your disenchantment with Summer's turnaround at the end, I think it really made the film. I also found it a bit jarring, especially her appearance, which amplified her change, but I think it was incredibly important that she find love in the end, just with someone else. Its the thunderbolt that allows Tom to understand the relationship, something he never did while in it.

At first, we're as puzzled as Tom is as to why the relationship didn't work. But we saw it through his eyes. When we discover that Summer never felt the same way, then we, like Tom, understand.

And as a side note, my sister was very much like Summer. She couldn't understand monogamous relationships and the thought of commitment was beyond scary. She now has a 10 year old child with her partner of 11 years.

Personally, I loved the movie, but it seems to be a lot like Up In The Air, my second favourite movie of the year. People either get it or don't. To me, (500) Days of Summer really struck a chord. I understood Tom and actually related to him. It's been a LONG time since I was single, but him and I weren't very far off.

And I think the fact that there really isn't much there with Summer's character is exactly the point. Tom never really got to know her, so she remained a bit of a blank slate, to be filled in by what Tom projected onto her. She wasn't the person Tom, and the audience, thought she was, because Tom (and the audience), only saw her through Tom's eyes.

Lastly, I read an interview with the screenwriter, and apparently the conversation near the end with Summer may or may not be in Tom's head. That's up to the viewer to decide.

By Blogger Tim W., at 2:53 AM  

I wasn't a huge fan of the movie -- I only kind of liked it -- but let me just say:

Anybody who thinks Summer's marriage at the end was "out of character" has not met or known enough women. Or people in general. In the real world, (seemingly) deeply held philosophical principles are thrown out the window all the time, especially when they are defensively self-serving in the first place. It may have been jarring, yes, but that was probably intended -- and doesn't necessarily mean it was out of character.

By Blogger CJ at Creating a Comic, at 3:51 AM  

In August I responded to a blog about (500)days of Summer and I thought it would be interesting if I showed you why Summer isn't a flake and her falling in love isn't out of character.

This film is worth watching not for the "romantic" aspect but for the films truth. It's theme.

What I saw was remarkably different from what you guys seem to have seen... Tom was a coward. Summer saw that and didn't want any part of it. Don't agree? Let me sell you on it:

When Summer met Tom, he had already been working at the card company for two years. He ignored his prestigious degree and shacked up to humdrum-dom. The very thing she came to that Town to escape. She was searching.

Tom saw and took a liking to her, but did he go up to her and chat her up? No, he and his friend sits there lambasting her based on their own assumptions. That's why he's floored when she comments on his music.

She's obviously into him. Notice how she enquired if he'd be at the karaoke? He's physically attractive. But would he step up to the plate?

His friend blurts out his interest in her, yet when she asks he denies it. She's now unsure of his feelings. He's sending her mixed signals and she has to 'man-up' and take the lead.

What girl wants a man like that? Not a girl who would travel from one part of the country to another in search of a better life. So naturally she tells him she doesn't want anything serious.

The one time he showed manliness was when he says "I say we're a couple!". Prior to that he humiliated her (and himself) by allowing another guy push onto her while saying/doing nothing like a chump, until the guy makes an insulting remark about her. She lost so much respect for him that she had to kick him out of her apartment.

She waits by the phone for his call but he's a chicken. So she gets up in the middle of the night and rain to see him. Would he grab and kiss her? Instead he rolls the ball right back into her court begging her to make sure her feelings never change. Had he ever asked her her feelings? Did he ever say his?

All she could do was wish. Even his baby sister told him "don't be a p#$$&"

He quit his job because he's angry with himself for punking out so often. He wanted someone to blame so he blamed cardmakers for denying people the ability to say how they feel. But even he doesn't believe that.

She goes to his park and tells him she's happy he's doing well. How could she see him as doing well when he's unemployed? He's doing well because he's finally taken action and made a career move. That impresses her. Finally! If only he had taken bold actions earlier, but alas, a guy in the coffee shop gave her that bold action that she had always hoped to see in him.

She cried at "The Graduate" because the graduate, a weird little weasel he might be, but an inactive coward he was not. Why could handsome Tom be like that? No, time to end this game that's going nowhere.

I think the reason this film played so well is because it's a true story. The script writer was telling his own story. Even in the end when he balls up and ask the girl out for coffee. He's learned!

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 7:53 AM  

What you missed, Alex. (Missed might be harsh...what you're not seeing) about the film is perfectly reflected in your comments here.

Look at all the different interpretations people want to put onto Tom, and Summer here. I would dare say most of the interpretations here say more about the worldview of the people writing the comment than the characters themselves.

Summer at the beginning has a philosophy based not on truth, or even really on experience, but on fear -- fear because of the one relationship she knew that didn't work out -- her parents -- and broke her heart. So she says she's never getting married. This is reflexive. it's not real.

Yes, Summer is going to be unknowable by definition because it's Tom's POV throughout the film, and all we see is his interpretation and projection of her. There's a whole other movie in there from Summer's POV where she finds Tom and gradually realizes that she wants more than Tom, pleasant enough as he is, and then finds that.

The fact that 500 Days is a story about Romance, but not, ultimately, a love story, is the most charming thing about it for me.

And now here's the point where that I point out that Epstein didn't like ANOTHER downbeat movie! :) Sorry. Had to.

By Blogger DMc, at 11:55 AM  

it's very difficult to watch a love story where the guy and girl don't get together in the end and feel satisfied. but because of the way the characters were crafted, you were completely okay with it. that impressed me.

By Blogger Amanda, at 3:25 PM  

@Jamaican-in-Toronto: I totally agree. He's a coward. That's why I didn't know why I was supposed to root for him. I wasn't rooting for him. I wanted to smack him. Hard to go through a movie watching someone you want to smack. He finally gets his s**t together. But I think I might have been more interested in Summer's story than Tom's story.

@Denis: I wouldn't call it a downbeat movie. It had a happy ending snatched out of nowhere. And, if you'll notice, much of what I was complaining about was the snatched-out-of nowhere happy elements at the end. Summer getting married. Tom becoming the architect he was always meant to be. And meeting Minka Kelly.

What I was suggesting might have been a braver movie would actually have been a good deal darker.

For someone who goes on about how criticism is good and essential, you seem to have a lot of nice things to say on your blog about whatever comes out, while you criticize me for criticizing ones I don't love. Eh?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 6:05 PM  

To me, the characters both seemed, well, ordinary. People you could know personally but never think about when they're out of the room. They're superficially clever, nice looking, and --- not much more.

At first that disappointed me. I usually expect movies to be about someone compelling. But in real life, love isn't like that at all. People mourn after losing the most ordinary blah lovers imaginable. Walk down the street and notice the people you walk right past; someone, somewhere, still cries at night over them. And maybe that's the point of the movie: he's nothing special, she's nothing special, and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference if you're one of those two people.

By Blogger Unknown, at 9:40 PM  

Fair enough. If I've got a consistent blindspot with movies that I generally don't like, then by all means let me know what it is. Are you denying that you have this thing where you generally don't like downbeat movies? Or violent ones? Wasn't there some sort of thing a while back where you posited it was because you had kids?

It's ok to want traditional hero narratives, but saying that Summer's change comes out of nowhere and the ending of Tom's story is tacked on is just exacerbating the central thrust that you didn't like, or get, (and by get know I'm saying from an emotional point of view, not "get" in the intellectual sense) a movie that a lot of other people have praised precisely for the piquant and bittersweet qualities that you didn't respond to.

I found Tom believable. Charming in his self doubt, and very real. Proof that you can be over-analytical and still MISS THE POINT ENTIRELY. The "Projection" of Summer was always more important to him, so the end of the movie was always going to be how he meets the person who gets him out of the trough.

And Summer's strategy through the movie was never going to work either. She could say she wanted to keep things casual and light, but if that was so, then why did Tom's eventual disappointing qualities bother her so? Her ending was always going to be where it went.

The idea of the movie was about two people who were wrong for each other, and why they were wrong from each other. We see hints of why Tom's wrong for her, but don't find out why she's wrong for him until the ending.

You didn't jump on board the train and that's fine. "I don't get it." is a perfectly credible response. Crash won best Picture. I don't get it. People loved A History of Violence. I don't get it. People are praising Inglourious Basterds and ... well, I'm not even sure what to think of that.

But in every one of those cases, I don't come out and say "I think the majority got it wrong." I just go, "mmm, okay. next."

That way, if down the line cough Battlestar Galactica cough, you have cause to reevaluate the work and see it a different way, you have less to walk back.

I'm also a big proponent in Romantic Comedy at least, of thinking that the genre is generally there to reinforce what people want to believe about things.

You're in a committed relationship and have a vested interest in seeing RomComs where love conquers. They don't have to be formulaic, but to some of us who have been through the storms but never found shore, 500 days speaks.

I approach, or try to, popular films or TV that I don't like from the perspective of, "well, why do people who like it like it? what do they see in it?" Not, "how would I have executed it more to my taste?"

I mean we all go to that place eventually. I just don't tend to go there first, is all.

By Blogger DMc, at 9:45 PM  

Maybe if you're three years out of Wesleyan, this movie speaks to your life. But I can't help feeling that almost anybody I know has a more interesting personal break-up story than this one. I guess I'm like the blind date in the movie who can't get why he thinks this is such a grand tragedy, and walks out.

By Blogger Unknown, at 10:09 PM  

@Denis: 'I approach, or try to, popular films or TV that I don't like from the perspective of, "well, why do people who like it like it? what do they see in it?" Not, "how would I have executed it more to my taste?"'

You would certainly be the first good writer I've met who can watch a movie that didn't click for them without thinking about how they'd have done it differently.

But if you read the post carefully, you'll see that it's all about what did and didn't work for me -- lots of "I liked this" and "what intrigued me" that and "what I would have liked to have seen more of" -- and the last paragraph asks people what worked for them.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:22 PM  

Fair enough. But I guess there are a whole bunch o' 3 year out of Wesleyans out there. B/C not only is the movie on just about everyone's shortlist for Best Screenplay, it's 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, something like 165 to 26 positive to negative reviews.

Everybody has their outs and their disagreements with the larger culture. But here's a case of both an undeniable critical and commercial success.

Alex is trying to take a success and fix it. And uh... I don't know ... don't know if that's a great stategy.

As opposed to say, those New ads for MERCY on NBC. Now I saw the pilot for that, I don't think America is in love with it. But whatever NBC is doing to push it, the promos make it look like a totally different show. One that I'd want to watch...that's the intersection where I think there's really something interesting going on.

I guess I just don't get the utter confidence with which Alex tends to dismiss movies like this that are great successes, but that he doesn't like. When that happens to me I get all worried and wonder what am I missing?

I guess I bite and come on and comment because I find that approach so utterly fascinatingly different than my own. We are all, in the end, fascinated by things that are different.

Kind of like Tom with Summer.

By Blogger DMc, at 10:28 PM  

By the way, that last comment about "different"ness also probably explains why men really like boobs.

Just saying.

By Blogger DMc, at 10:29 PM  

@Denis: 'Alex is trying to take a success and fix it. And uh... I don't know ... don't know if that's a great stategy.'

Yep. Neither do I. That's why I wrote the second-to-last paragraph of the post.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:55 PM  

@Denis: I guess what I'm asking here is, when did I forfeit my right to have an idiosyncratic reaction to a movie? When I started getting paid to write them? Every reviewer has a list of critically and commercially successful movies they hate. This is one of mine, or would be if I hated it. I didn't. I just found it uncompelling.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:02 PM  

Alex you said : "much of what I was complaining about was the snatched-out-of nowhere happy elements at the end. Summer getting married. Tom becoming the architect he was always meant to be. And meeting Minka Kelly.

What I was suggesting might have been a braver movie would actually have been a good deal darker."

To which I have to respond, what would be the point of the film being "darker"? Aren't stories about change? If it ended without Tom even realizing what a coward he's been then what would be the point? After his sister tells him to look again we start seeing him look at things from a new perspective and if that's what you call an out of nowhere happy ending then tell us what would be a better ending.
Dark endings for the sake of dark endings make absolutely no sence to me.

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 1:27 AM  

I have to agree with JamainInToronto. I don't see the point of the darker ending. The point of the story is that love can blind a person so they don't see what's really there. Since we see only what Tom sees, how would it work if he doesn't find out that the relationship was not what Tom saw?

"People loved A History of Violence. I don't get it."

I had to comment about this. My wife and I walked out of the theatre after watching this wondering why on earth it got such praise. The thing that bothered me the most about it was the family scenes didn't ring true in the least. It felt like it was written by a guy who's never been married and never had kids. Which of course I discovered was true.

But I digress....

By Blogger Tim W., at 2:49 AM  

Look at these comments. lol

I loved this movie. I rented it on netflix and loved it so much I went out and bought it.

1). Genius to shoot out of sequence.
2). Really creative ways of showing Tom's pov vs. what's really happening.
3). I love that Tom's kid sister is the "voice of reason" in the film. It shows how clueless Tom and men in general are.

1). I do like your points about Tom and his career - sudden return to architecture that's predictable

2). Now that you mention it, I would've loved to see Tom make the decision either to stay or leave Summer. You're right, that choice was made for him.

Overall though, I'm happy to see an unconventional boy meets girl love story. Cute film.


By Blogger V.D., at 1:30 PM  

I love this movie because if they hadn't had this scene - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2seAJsrtIbQ

then these school kids may not have given us this -


By Blogger Unknown, at 7:35 PM  

very nice and informative blog

By Blogger sasha, at 1:29 AM  

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