500 Days of Summer


So, I wanted to review a more mainstream movie for the blog finally, so I went and saw 500 Days of Summer this weekend. A couple of the reviews I read on Metacritic made some sweeping claims about this movie being the Annie Hall of the younger generation and I will say such claims are wildly exaggerated, or at least I would hope that they are. There is a very similar tone and narrative structure in this movie to that in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a few years ago, with much of the movie being flashes forward and backwards in time with some stylistic, music video-esque touches here and there. I’m not sure if this was an intentional knock-off or what, but I have to say Michel Gondry is better at playing with the visuals, Charlie Kaufman wrote a much more interesting, meaningful script, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet imbued their characters with a lot more humanity.

With that said, I think the script is probably the biggest culprit here. Zooey Deschanel was doing her quirky charming thing full force and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did such a fabulous job in Brick and The Lookout recently, I feel like he probably did what he could with the material. Many critics have been talking about how Deschanel’s character, Summer, is too much of a blank slate, but I would say both characters are underdeveloped. Due to the clever/gimmicky structuring of the narrative, I think it was an extra challenge to make the characters feel like real people and to make the interaction between the characters feel real. We don’t see a lot of personality flaws in either character and we see a lot of cutesy dates (including a weird scene almost entirely built around a product-placement that made me pretty queasy), but very few awkward moments or arguments so that you don’t really understand the sour side of the relationship. Without a fully developed negative side to the relationship, it feels like a shallow, glossy magazine version of romance and unfairly suckers the audience in a contrived way.

Additionally, SPOILER ALERT, the movie could have at least had a more realistic, powerful ending if they had left it at the scene where the movie begins, but instead they add this cheesy, ridiculous ending on that feels like a total cop-out for whatever emotional truth it was trying to dredge up. In Eternal Sunshine, you really understand both sides of the characters and their relationship with each other. You see the attraction, but also the boredom and annoyance, which are the familiar accoutrements of most long-term romantic relationships. The ending is full of pathos because you understand that the main characters can’t escape either the attraction or the inevitable discontent that develops between them and you feel the full poignancy of the can’t live with them or without them nature of love. By comparison, 500 Days of Summer doesn’t hold much water.

What really bothers me about 500 Days of Summer though has more to do with a certain type of quirky, indie-lite female character which seems to be coming up more and more in the mainstream movie business these days who is sometimes charming and sometimes cloying. She seems to be a recurring phenomena, arguably starting with Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn and morphing into the kind of character Winona Ryder used to play all the time, that Natalie Portman played in Garden State, Ellen Page played in Juno, and that Zooey Deschanel now plays all the time. I have mixed feelings about this recurring character, who on the one hand avoids the sex-bomb airhead female stereotype which so dominates the movie business and who can often be funnier and more intelligent than the traditional female lead.

I think the big difference between the versions I like and the ones I don’t is who is doing the writing. Namely, I think when there is a woman writing these characters, they often hold up a lot better than when men are writing them. For example, I think Juno was good, because for once you could see how the quirky, pluckiness was actually just the surface of a three-dimensional, though very young woman and not her whole personality. For another, she wasn’t just some fantasy girl of endless charm, she was sarcastic, self-deprecating, and whip-smart. I felt the same way about another movie, which fits the quirky label, The Waitress by Adrienne Shelly which has a black humor and sensitivity that adds up to a brilliant screenplay and a fantastic protagonist. Interestingly, the Winona Ryder characters that I liked so much when I was younger from Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Mermaids, and Reality Bites were also all written by women.

In contrast, Zooey Deschanel’s characters are often written by men and are so fucking sunny and one-dimensional it kind of makes you want to murder somebody. And Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, written by leading man Zach Braff, has to be one of my least favorite female characters of all time. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in some upcoming quirky movies whose trailers were of course shown before the screening of 500 Days of Summer that I went to, Paper Heart and Whip It.


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