The periodic narrator of (500) Days of Summer announces early on that “this is not a love story; this is story about love.” I disagree. This is neither a love story nor a story about a love but rather a story about narcissism, passive aggression, and rank immaturity, and as such, it’s not a particularly enjoyable tale.
God knows it’s not unusual for a romantic comedy to traffic in all sorts of twisted ideas about love and romance, but (500) clearly—and incorrectly—fancies itself unusually wise, which makes it unusually annoying. For one thing, despite its pretensions, the movie dabbles in plenty of the usual clichés (the impossibly wise child adviser being a particularly obnoxious element), but it’s the warped “romantic” hero that really gets me. The movie knows he’s in the wrong, but it never truly acknowledges just how in the wrong he is, and although it wants to pretend that Tom has Learned Lessons and Grown over the course of the movie, that’s not really the case—mainly because the filmmakers seem a bit foggy on what lessons he should have learned. They make a joke about Tom having badly misinterpreted the ending of The Graduate, but the joke’s on them: frankly, I don’t think they completely get it either.
Adding to my disappointment is the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so good in Brick and Mysterious Skin, plays petulant, callow Tom all too well (he truly is talented), and wanting to strangle the adorably crinkly-eyed Gordon-Levitt (who sometimes reminds a bit of my brother) is a peculiar feeling. In any case, his Tom falls hard for the beautiful Summer (Zooey Deschanel), an enigmatic pixie with eyes like an anime character. Despite his immediate declarations that she is The One, that’s not the case. Shared taste in the Smiths be damned, Tom and Summer are obviously looking for different things. Tom wants a girlfriend, and Summer has no interest in pursuing any kind of long-term relationship—and she’s quite upfront about that fact, and he claims to be okay with it, which means he has absolutely no one to blame but himself when she dumps him after it becomes obvious that he is way more invested in the relationship (unhealthily so) than she is. Dumping him under those circumstances is not bitchy but kind, but Tom takes it badly, stomping around his home and workplace like a mean drunk. I’m not sure how sympathetic we’re supposed to be, but I’m not.
Incidentally, none of this is a spoiler. The screenplay, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, bounces around chronologically, with the cutesy technique of identifying which “Day of Summer” it is (Day 147, Day 1, Day 246, etc.). It’s actually rather effective, especially in the hands of director Marc Webb, who gives everything a glossy, sometimes eccentric beauty. He got his start in music videos, a resume item that people tend to disparage but that I think tends to give filmmakers a remarkable flare for visuals. Take Tarsem, for example; he’s not a great storyteller but his eye is amazing. Tarsem is the flip side of someone like, say, Kevin Smith. Both are deeply compromised as directors, but their strengths are worth praising in equal measure. Anyway, Webb shows real promise here, and if his delicate, well-timed touch were in service of a better story, I would be much more enthusiastic.
But the story! AV Club writer Nathan Rabin has gotten a lot of mileage (and press) out of coining the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl to describe the characters who “[exist] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Think Natalie Portman in Garden State or Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. It’s not just that they’re oh-so-quirky; it’s that they have no interior life of their own, no hopes, no dreams, no purpose other than to teach the male protagonist and then flit on their way, like a twinklingly sexualized Mary Poppins or a Magical Negro (a term popularized by Spike Lee) in a different guise. In (500), Summer is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl extraordinaire. When you stop to think about it, we know virtually nothing about her. Tom is a thwarted architect who fancies himself some sort of sorrowful Young Werther for the twenty-first century, but who is Summer? What does she want out of life?
You could argue that we don’t know because Tom doesn’t know, because his reasons for “loving” her are entirely superficial (she has a cute laugh) and narcissistic (she makes him feel good about himself). But why then does the movie insist that this is a movie about love? You only have to look at how Tom treats his little sister (the impossibly wise child mentioned above) to realize that he is utterly incapable of giving of himself to another person, which I would argue is a prerequisite for a mature love. But Tom’s sister also exists only to prop him up. He knows nothing about her life, and he makes no effort to learn anything about her life, so wrapped up is he in his own issues.
If the movie were about Tom growing up a little, realizing the error of his ways, whatever, it would be less exasperating, but in an odd, roundabout way, Tom actually gets his infantile conception of love validated, which is infuriating—not to mention dramatically unsatisfying, from a storytelling perspective. On the plus side, though, the soundtrack includes a couple of songs by Webb’s former music video subject Regina Spektor, so that’s cool, especially the use of the gorgeous, hypnotic “Us” over the opening credits. For the record, however, if you love that song too—even if you too own all of Spektor’s albums and occasionally have to remind yourself not to sing along with your iPod when you listen on the subway—even then I won’t be taking that slight overlap in taste as a Sign that you’re my Soulmate™—not because I don’t believe in love or because I’m a cold-hearted bitch or because I have some dark trauma in my past but because I’m a grown-up, more or less, and I don’t throw around the idea of love lightly. Grow up, (500) Days of Summer.