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(500) Days of Summer

Marc Webb

Once you see what Marc Webb's Summer is up to, it becomes one of the coolest, smartest movies in the history of film. With intelligence and courage, the filmmakers dare to puncture some extremely venerable audience expectations, but they don't lose the audience. If (500) Days of Summer defies the romantic comedy formula, it does so without so much as a whisper of Brechtian distemper. For what might seem to be a love story that fails to end happily is actually a post-adolescent coming of age drama, told entirely in smiles. It is Harold and Maude with an age-appropriate couple. We want things to work out for these two, but we know that this can never be, because in the back of our minds we understand that there is no "couple" to speak of, only a boy's fantasy.

At the same time, Summer exposes our complacency with the idea that a man who does all the heavy lifting deserves the girl of his dreams. At the very start the story (which is told out of sequence), Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel catches the eye of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young man who creates greeting cards in the office where Summer has just been hired as the boss's personal assistant. Ms Deschanel takes care to distinguish Summer from the winsome and wacky supporting characters that she has played in such films as Big Trouble and Failure to Launch. Summer is every inch an enchanted creature, half elfin princess, half blithe spirit. Her eyes are usually as wide open as Tom's are narrowed to manly slits. She seems to hover slightly, undecided about planting both feet on the ground. Tom is immediately convinced of her unattainability, but after a few charmed encounters, he is persuaded that she likes him. Well, she says as much. But because she has already warned him that she is not looking for a serious relationship, he very disingenuously nods when she asks if he likes her. He doesn't like her; he's in love with her. 

Because Summer is so special Mr Webb and his cameraman, Eric Steelberg, do everything but drape the lens with gauze whenever Summer is in the frame we may be slow to notice that we are never taken into her confidence. Summer's point of view remains closed. Tom is so ardent, though, that the story assumes the contours of a medieval romance. This is another way of saying that the contours are not those of a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies invade the privacy of both lovers more or less equally. As a modern-day office worker in love with an extremely self-sufficient woman, however, Tom has little call to perform feats of derring do, and what we see of his side of things is pure romantic comedy. There's a brilliant morning-after sequence in which Tom marches off to work, the proverbial spring in his step causing his very smile to vibrate. The people he passes want to congratulate him and wish him well; gradually, they coalesce into an ad hoc dance company. (We know that feeling!) Bounding with vernal optimism, Tom boards the office elevator. The doors close, and the little numbers that mark the days of Summer spin by. When the doors open, Tom is grey and wretched, a compleat sad sack. Romantic comedies thrive on the funniness of such juxtapositions. But it's another form of comedy musical comedy that goes in for elaborately implausible dance numbers set in public parks on summer mornings. And where was Summer? Why wasn't she dancing?

No romantic comedy, (500) Days of Summer is a fantasy. Not long before the end, Summer gets married, to someone else, someone we don't meet. She encounters Tom on his favorite park bench. He doesn't want to fight with her, but some part of him is outraged that this wonderful woman who disclaimed interest in serious relationships suddenly changed her mind. But she tells him, in so many words, that she didn't change her mind. When she met her future husband, she tells Tom, she just knew that he was the right man for her something that she never could be certain of with Tom himself. And no wonder! Tom was too busy being in love to get to know the girl of his dreams. There on the park bench, in her rather matronly clothes, Summer is no longer an elfin princess. She almost looks bruised from a crash landing. But she's real.

Tom can see that she's real, because in the time between their breakup and now, he has grown up. Specifically, he has recommitted himself to the career in architecture that Summer, in one of their first conversations, made it pretty clear that she thought he ought to pursue, instead of writing treacly greeting cards. (The movie never really says that there's anything wrong with greeting cards. What's wrong is marking time in a job that doesn't mean anything to you.) Perhaps if Summer were to meet Tom for the first time now, now on this day when she has clearly come down to earth, he would have a better chance of winning her heart; but the odds are that he would not want to. In the last scene of the film, we see the nice girl that Tom will probably end up with. She's very pretty, but not at all unattainable, and no enchanted creature. The enchantedness of Summer is revealed as something that Tom has outgrown.

Broken-hearted young men around the world are going to be dragged to see this movie, by well-meaning friends, for the next ten years at least. At least half of them will be no worse off than Tom. Summer will teach them to become the adult men that they have it within them to be before they fall in love, and not seek personal fulfillment in the magic of an unattainable princess. (July 2009)

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