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(500) Days, and then what?
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I finally saw (500) Days of Summer, and I liked it. A lot. But I also found it to be exceptionally depressing, although I couldn’t initially figure out why. The narrator is up front about what we’re getting into – “You should know up front, this is not a love story.” – and we quickly see that it’s meant to be a story about love, and it’s probably not going to have a typical romantic comedy ending.

And yet we’re conditioned to watch movies a certain way, with certain expectations, and it’s difficult to shake that conditioning even when we’re warned ahead of time that that ain’t where this thing is headed.  But I digress. On balance, the movie ended with me feeling sad. And I’m not sure whether that was what was intended. After all, the point seems to be that, sure Tom has his heart obliterated, but there’s always another season waiting around the corner!

But what’s the point, Tom? Ok, you met someone new. But how many (days) do you get this time, and to what end? In a way, I feel that the central theme of the movie is dark: fatalism. No matter what we do, no matter what we think is going on, we’re steadily plodding along toward the end, even from the beginning. The best we can hope for is to make our journey as satisfying as possible. Some journeys will end happily, like Summer’s, and some may never end or will end badly, like Tom’s probably will.  Tom decided that architecture would be more satisfying than writing greeting cards, and he seems really into it. But he was also really into Summer, and we know how that turns out.

But there’s also something even a little darker, if only because it seems to be true. The crux of the movie is wrapped up in a Tom-crushing line from Summer. Tom says to Summer, “I need to know you won’t wake up tomorrow and feel a different way.” Summer’s honest reply: “I can’t promise you that. Nobody can.  Anyone who does is a liar.” And she clarifies this idea the next morning in response to Tom’s inquiry as to why Summer’s past relationships didn’t work out: “Nothing happened really. It’s what always happens. Life.”  And we’re suddenly dropped down the existentialist rabbit hole.

Well. Ok. So. Why did I like this movie so much? First of all, while I don’t necessarily agree about life being fatalistic, I probably agree so far as romantic relationships go. We’re programmed to look for love, to find a soulmate. Shoot, even the creation story describes the first woman as a helpmate for the man. She was created to help him live life, to be a companion. And so we pursue relationships like our lives depend on it. And we continue to do this despite the overwhelming evidence that the ultimate romantic relationship – marriage – ends in disaster more often than not.  So why do we pursue relationships when we know all the good times will most often be trumped by the bad? I think Tom would like to know as well.

But there were some artistic touches that stood out beyond all the sadness. The copy-room kiss was one of the better-written and acted scenes I’ve seen in a while. Tension is built, resolved and replaced in a matter of seconds, and I think we know how Summer and Tom feel in that moment. The “Reality” and “Expectations” split-screen was fantastic. I think most people have experienced that and just about everyone knows that the two screens will rarely match (if ever). In fact, the entire movie could be said to describe the differences between Tom’s expectations and reality.

There was a nice bit of Sixth Sense-like directing. There are a few scenes where I wondered “Are they really there together, or is Tom imagining this?” At the end of their trip to Ikea, Tom and Summer hold hands, but there’s a distance between them that seems large. The hand-holding seems almost imaginary. On the train to the wedding, I wondered if Tom really saw Summer, or if he was just hoping he saw her, using her to cope with this uncomfortable situation so he wouldn’t have to go solo. On the bench at the end of the movie, if Tom were sitting there alone, and another person saw him there, the observer would have no idea he was interacting with Summer. Was this just Tom’s way of finally saying goodbye? Ultimately, all of these scenes efficiently accomplish their objective: to emphasize the ambiguity inherent in relationships. Tom was constantly wondering, “Will she ultimately reciprocate? Am I alone here?” And we, as viewers, were asking the same questions.

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  1. Your Sixth Sense bit has reopened the book on this film for me. Did you notice how, in its own not-so-subtly stylized way, the entire movie kind of felt like a commercial for Zooey Deschanel? There isn’t a single shot where she isn’t framed, lit, dressed, and made up perfectly. She’s presented to the audience as a kind of unattainable object of desire, dangled in front of us for two hours, seemingly with the intent of making us “want” her despite our impregnable distance from her in the exact way that Tom does. So between the way she’s shown to us in a filmic sense and the aura of mystery that surrounds her as a character, Summer is quite literally an apparition. She is as unknowable-yet-haunting as a ghost. We’re not at all incented to like her as a person or sympathize with her dour romantic struggles (the way we are with Tom), only to desire her. I think your reading hinted at this, but when you really look at the bigger picture, it’s not even a story “about” love. It’s all about isolation and the manipulation of desire. No wonder you didn’t walk out happy.

  2. Sean, I think you nailed it. I didn’t want to go into the Sixth Sense angle too intensely in my write-up because I felt that part of the fun of that perspective was allowing each person to run the movie through his own unique filter. I think, in this case, asking the question, “Does she really even exist?” is a legit one. I think it would be a stretch to prove that she doesn’t exist, but I think there’s an easy case to be made that she doesn’t exist as we see her. And perhaps there’s a case to be made that Tom’s own fear of commitment and/or failure caused him to view her in a specific way to make it easier on himself when the “inevitable” end of the relationship arrived (quotes used to imply a self-fulfilling prophesy).

    I think there could be a few thousand words written on this without too much effort, but I was determined to keep my synopsis in the sub-thousand-word category.