(90) Minutes of Bad Relationships

Your eyes... you look like a velvet painting!

This past Saturday, one week after we saw Inception, Queta and I had an impromptu “Inception All-Stars Movie Marathon.” Here’s how it broke down: I still had my Netflix disc of Whip It, and (500) Days of Summer was premiering that same night on Cinemax (though it just goes by “MAX” now, it seems that officially it is still called “Cinemax”). Of course, Whip It stars business-casual hottie Ellen Page, and Summer stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt-Toomanynames.

Tim already covered Whip It in a previous post, so I’m not going to concentrate on that one. Briefly: formulaic, but fun. The “underdogs going to the championships” story is tweaked enough to be involving. Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen’s older brother) gives the standout performance as the long-suffering coach. Also, Alia Shawkat is just cute. And freckly.

So, (500) Days of Summer. Summary: Tom (JGL) is shown with Summer (Zooey Deschanel) on a park bench, holding hands. A narrator tells us, “This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story.” The gimmick of the movie is that it jumps around in time during the titular 500 days. It begins at the beginning, and ends at the end, but the story skips around in between. It’s like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book straight through. Except there, you die, like, six times.

Is that Zooey as a kid?

Not only does the movie share an actor with Inception, it also shares a deep divisiveness. Critics loved it, and many young, hip folks for whom it was proclaimed to be perfect for hated it. I sit in the middle, like Jesus or something. I don’t think it was a life-changing experience; it was a perfectly enjoyable, cute film with a well-done gimmick. However, I don’t see where some viewers’ hatred lies. Is it a bit too precious and “indie” at times? Sure. But, making movies about young hipsters has its own variation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Simply trying to make a film about youth, no matter how pure your intentions and how hip the filmmakers may be (Marc Webb, being a music video director, might be referred to as hip, despite some [many] of the videos he’s directed), will fail on some level. You’ll get some references wrong, some fads may be out of date by the time the film is released, and other elements may have to be simplified or sanitized or even just invented in order for the film to get made. See also: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which exists in a music-industry world that has no basis in our reality. Point is: you’ll never please all young people in regards to those sorts of things.

Gimmick though it may be, the time-skipping works. If this story were told completely linearly, it would just be about the slow disintegration of a man’s semi-obsessive relationship with a woman who simply doesn’t love him back, and the toll it takes on him. It’s possible to make a film about that, but it would probably just make you wanna cut your wrists and sit in a bathtub. The gimmick puts the focus on Tom’s perception of the relationship. At one point, Tom’s little sister (Chloe Moretz, who again proves she’s the best child actor out there now) disputes that Summer is his soulmate; he’s just remembering the good stuff, and he needs to think about all of it. That’s the movie right there – it shows the good and bad (often one right after the other), replays incidents to reveal new angles, and exposes both Summer’s and Tom’s faults. It’s a psychological inventory in movie form. With a Hall & Oates musical number.

YOU WILL GO FOR THAT, SO HELP ME GOD!

A few people I had heard from about this movie wanted to vilify Summer, saying that she was some frigid, awful bitch. One of Tom’s coworkers (Geoffrey Arend, aka The Asshole Who Married Christina Hendricks) describes Summer as such in the beginning. And it’s easy to see where that idea comes from. She’s rather flighty, keeps up that whole “Love is an illusion” crap, and seriously toys with Tom’s emotions a couple of times. But, the film isn’t that cut-and-dry with her, or Tom. After his breakup, Tom is set up with a beautiful young woman for a blind date. He gets drunk and complains to her about Summer. Put off by this, she states that Summer didn’t cheat on him, didn’t take advantage of him, and stated up front that she wasn’t interested in being a girlfriend. So, what was the problem? Disagree with Summer’s ideas about life if you may, but she was consistent with them -even if, by being so, she wasn’t consistent with Tom.

Tom’s failure at Summer (I’m adapting the term “failing at Torgo” here) highlights what I believe is the ultimate romantic-comedy deconstruction in the film. Though I have covered some of the plot already, and you know off the bat that things don’t go well for the two main characters, I’m still going to throw up a…

Most romantic comedies are about someone (girl or guy) setting their sights on someone else (cheerleader, jock, musician, manic pixie dream girl) and pursuing him/her against all odds. The usual end to this is that the pursuer gets him/her at the end of the film. Oddly, this kind of plot ignores some of the pursued’s own interests; no matter what his/her initial impressions are of the protagonist, the format dictates that he/she falls in love with the protagonist. I pick you, I get you. Summer tweaks that by saying, flat out, that despite his best efforts, Tom was not meant to get Summer at the end. They were not a match. Just because I picked you, doesn’t mean I get you.

We may hate Summer for not only breaking Tom’s heart, but also getting engaged to someone else soon afterward; not only because that flies in the face of Summer’s professed skepticism about “Love,” but also because we’ve watched Tom agonize over the whole thing. But, think about it: we’ve only seen Tom’s perspective. He suffers from the same naiveté that most romantic comedies do: that idea of winning the girl you like against all odds. Because he likes Summer, she’s supposed to be with him. But that’s not how things go in real life. When she talks to Tom at the end about her engagement (which is still a bit sudden, regardless), she tells him that she fell for the new guy in a way she didn’t with Tom. That hurts Tom, and could hurt us as well, but Summer’s being honest; it wasn’t working the way Tom felt it should. And it’s neither Summer’s nor Tom’s fault. They just weren’t supposed to be together.

British critic Peter Bradshaw complained that the movie was “weirdly incurious about the inner life of its female lead.” It was, and was by design. It’s the story of Tom’s battle about the relationship. If we got Summer’s point of view, we’d see from frame one that she just didn’t see “long-term” in the relationship. We wouldn’t see Tom’s struggle to ultimately figure that out. There’s a weird egotism about most romantic comedies, and Summer calls it out for what it is.

Summer was an entertaining film. Cutesy, sure, and Tom’s heartbreak over Summer is kind of broad at times. But the structure is a novel idea, and within it lies a thesis about how these kinds of movies normally work, and the problem with that. The acting is good, and there are some funny parts. I say it’s worth a watch.

And again, HE MARRIED HER. (500) Days of That Guy.

About Louis

SUCKERPUNCH!
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6 Responses to (90) Minutes of Bad Relationships

  1. Blake says:

    Excellent points. My only gripe about the movie was its inclusion of one of the tropes I hate most: the overly wise child. I had no problem with Moretz’s performance; indeed, I agree with you that she’s the best child actor around right now (and would be among the finest at any time). I have a problem with the adults (I checked, there were two) writing that character.

  2. Erik says:

    My major problem is the film’s punchline. While Justin would say the character did grow, I think the final title card reveals that he’s on his way to repeating the cycle. He’s learned nothing from the relationship and it utterly destroys everything the movie stated it was trying to do. It’s not a cute or clever ending. It’s damn near, “it was all a dream.”

    • Louis says:

      I think that’s too cynical a reading of it. I think the reset shows, rather than a repeat of the cycle, that Summer’s cycle is done, and the Autumn cycle begins. (Anyone wanna make a menstruation joke? No? Fine.)

      I think it’s less “Doomed to repeat history” than “Picking up and trying again.” Everything is a cycle. If you spend the rest of your life with a girl, then that cycle just lasts that long.

  3. Kat says:

    I think it’s worth a watch just for the dance sequence and the minimart-in-a-bathrobe scene.

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