Picture if you will a writer with no idea what theme he wishes to pursue. He likes offbeat romance films and sci-fi, but he doesn’t quite know how to turn that into a weekly column. Instead, he drinks and then rants on Microsoft Word, editing the product the next day so that it appears a saner man wrote it. Fortunately for this man, an A. Gladwin, he has an editor that doesn’t mind. This week, we see Mr. Gladwin discussing tropes and misconceptions. This is…The Tuesday Zone.
Uh, thanks for the introduction, vaguely ominous narrator. Anyways, I’d like to talk to you all about (500) Days of Summer. And it’s not about the parentheses, because I don’t get why they matter either. It’s also not just because it’s my favorite movie and I finally have the chance to write something on what is the second most important source of film journalism after Ebert. No, I want to talk to you guys about Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), because anytime this movie comes up I hear something along the lines of, “God, Summer (or Zooey) is such a bitch.” But I have a twist to reveal: Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.
Sorry, what I meant was that Tom is actually the dick in this relationship. That’s right; someone as dashing as Joseph Gordon-Levitt can be the antagonist. And I’m gonna prove it, with evidence and all that. This is bordering on real journalism. But I need you to hear me out here. You might want some coffee or tea, because this could take a minute, but bear with me.
Unreliable narrators aren’t new, but that’s exactly what Tom is. He’s not the literal narrator but we are shown his perspective of his and Summer’s relationship. When we’re shown someone’s perspective of a story, we sympathize with him. We naturally want to connect to a character in a story, and if we see everything through one person’s eyes, it’s easiest to connect with him. In (500) Days of Summer, we think Tom is a good hearted man that falls for a lovely lady, but lo and behold we learn that she is not lovely at all. Zooey turns out to be complete jerk.
Summer attracts him then rejects him, seduces him then dumps him, leads him on and then marries another. Jeez, Zooey, you won’t hesitate to destroy a handsome man’s soul, will you?
But now I want you to think about what happens in this story from a third person perspective. What do you see? You see a man—well, a boy really—who is a hopeless romantic. He’s grown up with lovesick pop music and a misreading of The Graduate. So when he finally meets Summer, a gorgeous woman that shares his quirky interests, he falls in love on the spot. There’s already a problem here, which Tom’s sister points out: “Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” And she’s (100)% correct. Also, I had to IMDB that quote and the FAQ revealed that the parentheses around the title are a reference to 80s pop songs like “You Make My Dreams (Come True)”. It also better resembles a counter, apparently. So I do know that now. But it’s still not what I’m here to talk about.
Anyway, what was I talking about?
Oh, right. So Tom has mistaken common interests and good looks for love. Any romantic comedy without Katherine Heigl in it will tell you that love is based on connections that are much deeper than that. Here is where the Anachronic (non-chronological) Order comes in. We first see Tom well into these (500) days, on day (488) specifically, and thus we know that the relationship does progress over a year into the future. So when we go back to the early days, we take this knowledge with us. Thus, we’re not as shocked by Tom’s love-at-first-sight attitude. If the film were chronological, we would be a lot more skeptical of Tom’s melodramatic romanticizing.
So the relationship is off to a rocky start. This is made worse by Summer’s insistence that love isn’t a real thing and that she doesn’t want anything serious. That’s understandable though; whether we agree or not, we can respect that this is her view on the matter. But Tom pursues anyways, and eventually they become close friends (and then a bit more), which leads Tom to insist they are dating. She relents, for reasons we don’t really know—maybe she feels guilty, or doesn’t want to lose the friendship she has—because the film isn’t from her perspective. Maybe she begins to wonder if this is what love is: shared quirky interests and sexual compatibility. Either way, the relationship starts, and that’s when things really become problematic.
But before I get into that, I want to explain an important trope of romantic comedies. It’s called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope, which was coined by Nathan Rabin from the Onion’s AV Club. He was talking about Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, but that’s hardly the only film where that character type exists (see: http://tinyurl.com/9exx743). The basic gist of the MPDG is that she’s a female character in a romantic comedy who is upbeat, giddy, and quirky. This is almost always in contrast to the male lead, who is young but brooding.
The problem with this trope is that the MPDG only exists to lift the male lead out of his broodiness so that he can love the world. There’s an inherent sexism here because the female character has almost no depth; she doesn’t seem to have much of a life other than spending all her time on this dude who can’t get over his own sadness. People often think Summer is the ultimate MPDG, but here they miss the entire point of the film: Summer is a deconstruction of that trope. By this, I mean that she shows its flaws.
This goes back to that whole unreliable narrator and point of view business. Tom sees Summer as a MPDG and thinks her unrelenting, quirky happiness can make him happy and give him the love he always heard about on his Smiths records. This would be great, but there’s one problem: Summer isn’t a trope. She’s a human being. She gets upset, confused, and she can brood with the best of them.
But Tom doesn’t see this. To him, she is the perfect, happy-go-lucky woman that he wants. “That’s great!” someone might think. “He looks past her faults and sees the best in her.” But that’s not what’s going on here. He’s ignoring the things he doesn’t like so that she can fit his idealized image of her, much like I just did with that idealized twit I quoted. This is what really dooms their relationship and it is connected to his love-at-first-sight attitude. He only sees what he wants to see and not what’s actually there, and a healthy relationship can’t be built on that. There needs to be a deep, mutual understanding between the two parties, weaknesses and all. In this way, the director and writers are showing us the flaws of this trope and its shallow portrayal of women through Tom.
Because (500) Days of Summer is so deftly written and directed, we don’t even notice. Throughout most of the film we see her as this perfect woman that exists only to please the broody male. We root for the monster because we see what he sees. We want him to find true love but we don’t realize that his idea of true love is anything but that. And then it all comes crumbling down when Summer invites Tom to her party, which is the turning point of the whole film.
Tom goes and expects the relationship to rekindle, but finds out that it’s Summer’s engagement party to another man. This is the only horribly cruel thing Summer does in the film, but my god does it work. She does something so mean, so out of character (from Tom’s and our perspective) that she forces him to see her not as his little flower, but as a flawed human being. We see this literally as the screen is divided between Tom’s expectations, which up until now he’s been able to bend his memories into agreeing with, and reality, which he finally sees isn’t perfect.
“What a bitch,” we think, and we’re almost right, but when you think about it from Summer’s perspective, this was necessary. She needed to push Tom away and let him see her for who she really is. She’s not an ideal or a perfect image, but a person that needs to be seen from all angles. Tom can’t do that, so she finds someone that can. We call Summer a bitch for this scene, but we don’t realize that Tom is an ass for the whole movie. He’s a monster.
No guys, I mean it. Seriously. A monster.
I’m sure a lot of people picked up on all this while watching the movie, but I only really hear the complaints about Summer. If you hated (500) Days of Summer because you hated Zooey’s character, or because you just couldn’t stand how awful she was to poor Tom, I think you should give the movie another shot. It’s rare that a movie can entertain us, engage us, and also make us consider the pitfalls of an entire character type and genre.
So now, when someone says to you, “God, Summer was such a bitch!” you can just change the subject, because it’s not really worth getting into an argument about some movie that you read about on the internet. You’re informed, and you know that the perception of Summer is wrong. It’s a Rooster Illusion. I think. Jeez guys, I’m just trying to fit in here. Whatever. Time to brood.