I knew it. Exactly what I was afraid would happen has happened.
America, we’re under attack by indie hipster romantic comedies.
In (500) Days of Summer (don’t you fucking dare forget those parentheses), we follow Tom, a young man who has been weaned on hipster pop songs and popular cultural touchstones to believe that everyone has one special person waiting out there for him or her, and if you miss your chance, that’s it. He happens upon a comely, quirky assistant at his office, named Summer, who happens to like The Smiths and Ringo Starr and Knight Rider and plays games like who can say the word “penis” the loudest in public without getting embarrassed. Unfortunately, she also doesn’t believe in love, and wants nothing to do with a serious relationship, to Tom’s dismay. This doesn’t stop him from trying, however, otherwise this would be a really short movie and it would be titled (20) Days of Summer, instead.
What has people shitting their pants about this flick is the fact that instead of moving in a linear fashion, it goes back and forth in chronology, showing us both the good times and bad for this couple. Among other quirks are a musical number, some 2D animation and the use of split-screen. A lot is being made of the fact that although this is a romantic comedy, the boy and the girl don’t end up together. I’m not spoiling anything by saying this, either; the narrator tells us up front that it doesn’t work out between these two. People seem to find (500) Days of Summer frank, refreshing and original.
Except it’s not any of those things, not really. I will tell you what (500) Days of Summer is. It’s another indie rom-com that tries to be simultaneously ironic and sincere, hip and heartfelt. Tom thinks he’s found true love just because Summer likes his taste in music. They frolic around a furniture store pretending to play house with the non-functional kitchen and living room items. They play duck duck goose and the aforementioned game of yelling “penis.” Summer is a “free spirit” that the movie tries to make us think has some sort of preternatural pull on people. She gets apartments for 9% off their normal price. She’s responsible for a spike in Belle and Sebastian record sales because she quoted them in her high school yearbook. She’s the (wait for it) manic pixie dream girl of the piece. She’s seldom held up as more than an object of Tom’s affection, a walking, talking McGuffin (of the Juno variety) that inspires Tom to take a look at his unambitious young life and try to change for the better. She even has a fucking heart-shaped birthmark. I’m guessing the reason this character wasn’t named Mary Sue was because it didn’t lend itself to a pun in the title. And when she’s not perfect, she’s just sort of a bitch that’s hard to feel attached to. And Tom is so much of a sap that it’s hard to sympathize with him. He cranks up a Smiths song on his iTunes in hopes that Summer will hear it as she passes and instantly fall in love with him. Tom has a precocious, wise-beyond-her-years little sister who tells him early in the timeline, during a game of Wii Sports tennis, “Just because she’s likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” This is probably the truest sentiment the movie has to offer, yet Tom of course ignores it and goes to make Summer a mixtape with his favorite obscure band that she never listens to.
And then there’s the narrator. He opens the movie and introduces us to Tom and Summer, and pops up now and again throughout the picture. At the start, he tells us Tom had seen The Graduate and had misread the ending. Is the narrator here to make sure that the audience doesn’t misread this movie’s intentions? Because I can’t think of a single reason this movie needs narration. It’s plain enough what’s happening if you have eyes, ears and a brain. At the end of they day, it just seems like the screenwriter hammering his points into the audience’s heads. Oh, and the narrator’s a fucking liar. “This is a boy meets girl story. It is not a love story.” No, it’s both. Yeah, the boy and girl don’t end up falling in love and isn’t that so unique and different and hip and cool. But every other scene, someone’s talking about love or saying they’re in love or asking someone else what love is. It’s a love story insofar as it’s a story about love. And even after the story goes through hoops to try to debunk Tom’s naive attitude about finding “the one,” the movie still seems content to leave a little bit of hope for all the mopey art school losers out there that maybe, just maybe, there’s fate and destiny and all that.
The thing is, people, is that this movie isn’t really anything new. If I was feeling particularly glib or dismissive, I could’ve just written “I liked this movie better when it was called Annie Hall” and called it a day. It’s a clear inspiration and a superior movie. Annie Hall did the same charting of the ups and downs of a realistically-doomed relationship interspersed with little flourishes of style like having out of body experiences, and it did it while being actually funny! But Mr. Grump, you say, that was 30 years ago. The kids need something they can relate to today! Well, that already happened in 2004. And no, I don’t mean Garden State. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind took its own indie hipster crack at a doomed relationship, played out of order, only it spiced things up with a science fiction twist and also included some really heavy stuff on the importance of memory and happened to have a visionary director at the helm, creating some of the most inventive stuff I’ve ever seen in a film. AND it was a good dose more sobering than this veritable love letter to ex-girlfriends. Practically everything in this movie has been done before, and done better.
And this fucking influx of these too-cool-for-school romantic comedies. We should have seen it coming. We were warned when Zach Braff’s adorably-coiffed mind gave us Garden State, a Natalie Portman manic pixie dream girl vehicle known equally for its hip soundtrack. However, we sat idly by while Jason Reitman invaded Poland directed Juno, an indie hipster romantic comedy that rode its wave of popularity as ironically as possible to an Oscar win. And now look what we’ve wrought. Michael Cera’s allowed to roam free, making movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Even the title’s reference of iPod/digital music player terminology makes me wretch. And Cera’s got ANOTHER awful, twee film about his awkward love life coming out, Paper Heart, a documentary (?) featuring his “girlfriend” Charlyne Yi traveling America interviewing people about their definition of love and coincidentally falling in love with Cera by the end of it. It seems to exist solely to give the geeky girls out there that look or think the way Yi does hope that they have a chance at Michael Cera, their dork king. And then there’s Adam, the romantic comedy about Asperger’s, the serious autism spectrum disorder that seemingly everyone who’s even a little bit of a misfit is being diagnosed with. The trailer made it seem like Asperger’s just makes you adorably awkward and honest and too pure to live in this complicated world but maybe he can teach her about the simplicity of lov–BLECH.
You know what? I’m gonna make up a hip, indie romantic comedy. Right now. It’s called An Apple A Day and is about a quirky young woman named Apple (played by Jena Malone) who moves into a New England (or Northwestern, either works) town and opens a shop where she knits scarves with ironic phrases on them. She catches the eye of local social misfit, Michael Cera, who comes out of his shell after he and Apple bond over their The Cure vinyl record collections. Michael Cera can be wearing a nostalgic/ironic print t-shirt with the obscure 80s cartoon character Bravestarr on it. Apple can live with her eyepatch-wearing grandmother who’s adorably going senile, but gives Cera amazing romantic advice in the third act to stop Apple from riding away on Demitri Martin’s Vespa. The soundtrack can have Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, Iron and Wine, The Postal Service and theme song by The Plain White Ts. There should be a lot of references in the dialogue to blogs, Scott Pilgrim and esoteric commercials. A sample:
[Apple enters Michael Cera’s apartment]
Michael Cera: Apple, look, we need to have a talk… about us.
Apple: Where’s the beef, Mr. Whipple?
Michael Cera: The beef is here. With us. Like an elephant in the room. But beef, instead.
… Oscar, anyone? Now all I need to do is pretend I was a stripper and start dressing like a homeless drag queen.
It’s not like (500) Days of Summer doesn’t have its occasional glimpses of truth. There’s this one scene where Summer is describing in a voiceover a dream she has about flying while her and Tom are playing pattycake or whatever on her bed and it actually feels like there might be a glimpse at a real, human emotion somewhere in the scene. The scene where Tom’s expectations and reality play out in split-screens is a clever idea. I honestly like Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor. If you want a good Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie (AND peformance!) see Brick, a truly overlooked gem from the past few years. As for Zooey Deschanel… she has yet to prove herself to me as an actress and not as a twee indie cottage industry.
At the end of the day, I did not think (500) Days of Summer was the delightful breath of romantic fresh air that movies needed. If you want that, watch Annie Hall or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or even better, Amélie. At least those movies are a bit more honest and less formulated for success. If you liked this movie… good for you. The alchemists in Zach Braff’s shoegazing army did their jobs, I guess.