|The movie in a nutshell.|
I don't know how we came around to talking about heartbreak when we had spent a lot of time discussing zombies and martial arts, but this guy was insisting that (500) Days of Summer was *the* movie to talk about the frailties of modern relationships. Something to do with the rude awakenings between reality and expectation, and I said that's been overly done. Hell, Woody Allen did it better, subtitles and all. Don't care, he said. But that moment at the rooftop party. It's the best movie ever. WTH is this guy talking about?
Surely, it's an exaggeration. But nearly a month later, and I decided to watch (500) Days of Summer again. I've seen it maybe 3 or 4 times, a really long time ago--it's the sort of movie that requires a certain state of mind. The first time I saw it was on the last full show of its first day local screening. I could have seen it weeks or months ahead, but I had avoided other ways of seeing it. It had to be in a theater. The circumstances were different then, but by the time I saw it, I was coming from a meeting that had run a little too late, and one that involved having to down the better part of a beer bucket. Some people wouldn't complain about that kind of job, but well… By the time I managed to haul my half-drunk self from Metrowalk to the nearest mall, the last screening had already started at The Podium. Not wanting to go home defeated, I raced to Megamall, where I promptly bumped into someone I knew who wanted to small talk, and I practically ran away and caught the very last screening just when the disclaimer about everything being a work of fiction were starting to roll. I was alone in my row in a near empty theater, half drunk and heartbroken. "That bitch," the credits said.
|This was how I probably looked like while watching the movie in the theater.|
Of course I loved the movie. I was Tom frakking Hansen and all the Summer Finns of the world could just suck it.
There's nothing original with a story of a boy meets girl, but which the film completely insists is *not* a love story. And there lies the key to appreciating this movie. It's about definitions and denials. If it's not, then how come Joseph Gordon-Levitt is breaking plates on account of a non-relationship that should not matter and the dissolution of which should not hurt one teeny tiny bit? The negation is a confirmation. Not a love story? Hell, yeah, it totally is.
One where the tensions come from the insistence on not defining anything. Humans are strange creatures with a constant need for order and naming things. Perhaps the most dreaded sentence sequence ever in any language: "We have to talk. What exactly are we doing? What am I to you?" Here, there is only one correct answer: an affirmation. "Yes, we are in a relationship. I love you, too." Anything short of it will lead to heartbreak, mayhem and maybe a few broken bones--or muscles. The heart is a muscle, yes? But nobody talks about how a heart is torn like ligaments or hamstrings that can be pulled. It can only be broken in a million pieces, as fragile as glass that met a baseball bat careening from behind the bed of a pickup careening down the bridge at 120mph.
Here is where hindsight and distance are your friends. The first time around, I was as self-absorbed in Tom's plight that I could only see one thing: How dare this Summer person refuse the affection and feelings that I have for her? Everything was going swimmingly well. Tom and Summer hung out in Ikea, making out on the display bed while a Chinese family stared at them from the bathroom. They are perfectly at ease in make believe: the wife makes meatloaf to serve the husband at the end of a workday. Strangely enough, all their faucets do not work. It doesn't matter because they have a second kitchen. For all the perfection of their 50s style domesticity, they are not bothered by the fact that something as basic as the sink not working is going to cause all sorts of problems down the road.
Early in the movie, after that bold insistence that this is not a love story, we were shown a splitscreen montage of Tom and Summer as children growing up. There's this one moment where young Summer, in a yard in Michigan, blows at a dandelion, the petals carried by the wind to the other half of the screen, where young Tom, in New Jersey, tries to catch and burst as many bubbles blown his way. It's the perfect dichotomy: Summer, perhaps making a wish before blowing away the petals, optimistically pinning her heart's desires on petals in the wind; and Tom swatting away at the perfect orbs, obliterating wonder and wishes at the same time. How little did they know that years later, they would be at opposite ends, playing opposite roles in how they approach reality?
I missed this little contrast in world views the first time--it is easy to get lulled by a montage about the leads growing up. It's too early in the movie. Besides, it's just a (very) cute way of showing us how they came to be who they are in the present. But it is important because the imprint has been there all along. We have been told that Tom is prone to misreading cues--he totally misread the ending of The Graduate as romantic optimism. He believed in The One. No matter if his precocious younger sister breaks the myth of compatibility for him: "Just because some cute girl likes the bizarro crap you like, that doesn't make them your soul mate." But no, when Summer hums him back the lyrics to a Smiths song in the elevator, Tom had the realization that, by god, Summer was The One. Not even when Summer herself told him that she's never been in love. "There's no such thing as love," she told him. "It's a fantasy."
|Her name is Summer, not Fate.|
But Tom is sold on the fantasy. Summer was pretty much up front about it. She's young, she wants to have fun. "I'm not looking for anything serious," she tells Tom. "Is that okay?" Tom says yes, he's fine with it. Later it becomes very obvious that he isn't. He wasn't. He will never be the sort of guy who would be fine with Ikea roleplaying with someone who is not his girlfriend, shower sex notwithstanding. And that's the crux of the problem. Tom probably liked Summer so much that he said yes. Even when he said so, what he really wanted was to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Summer herself was clear about it. Later, she would say that "she just knew" that Tom wasn't the one. But as far as Tom was concerned, he was offering his heart and his love on a silver platter. Isn't that what girls want? But Summer is not just any girl.
We're more used to seeing girls acting this way, wanting to know where things are headed before jumping right in. You know that story: the girl sleeps with the boy of her dreams. He's not her boyfriend yet, but she has so many feels about him and her and how good they are together. One day, she would ask him: Just what are we doing? Who am I to you?
Girls are compelled to define the relationship. Girls always want something more, to know where they stand in the order of things. But to be fair, boys do fall in love and make love on Saturday night. Then later ask the girls they're with to DTR* in the middle of pancakes for dinner. At this point Summer realizes that she and Tom are not on the same page. Tom is the boy with all the feels, and Summer does not share them. They break up. It is Day (281) or something like that.
Considering that the movie is called (500) Days of Summer, the break up occurs at (just a little bit to the right of the) story's midpoint. Which also means that Tom spends nearly half the same amount of time to get over the failed (non)relationship with Summer.
Summer wants to be friends, but Tom simply is not equipped to handle that kind of closeness without thinking that she must still be interested in him. She disappears from the greeting card company. Tom also quits his job after it becomes obvious that he can't channel his heartbreak into making grief sound witty and polite enough to put on cardboard. He pursues architecture again, something which Summer convinced him he's actually good at and should pursue instead of rotting in greeting card hell. They have a run in at a colleague's wedding, and Tom becomes convinced he still has a shot at winning her back when she invites him to a party. He goes in with all sorts of expectations that end up dashed when he realizes that the party was to celebrate Summer's engagement. And he was too dense to ever realize it.
Later, he even runs into Summer again at that spot with too many parking lots overlooking the city. He still couldn't believe that Summer was married now to some guy she met in a deli. Where Tom thinks that the universe has forsaken him, Summer believes that Tom has been right all along: that there is someone for her all this time. Someone she wasn't just willing to call boyfriend, but even commit to him as her husband. It just happened that it wasn't Tom.
Surely, this is difficult to accept for Tom: Why not me? Why not let me make you happy? Summer has made herself clear from the very beginning. Tom's sister even tells him that perhaps the relationship wasn't all that perfect in the first place, that's he's only remembering the good things. The warning signs have all been there all along, Tom was only too willing to turn a blind eye so much that the breakup over pancakes came as a surprise. Which shouldn't be, according to Summer, since they've been like Sid and Nancy for months by then. But Tom was oblivious to it.
|Just to be clear: He's Nancy.|
If you think about it, there wouldn't be a problem had Tom been sincere in his reply to Summer, who did not want a relationship in the first place. But Tom wanted to be with her, and perhaps thought that surely, Summer would change her mind. She did, but not in the way he thought she would. And that upset Tom big time. And it was also why I was so upset during all my previous viewings of (500) Days of Summer. I, like Tom, refused to see Summer's line of reasoning.
Distance and repeat viewings bring fresh eyes to a subject. Watching (500) Days now, I could appreciate Summer more. My empathy has shifted away from Tom Hansen and I found myself saying, "How could Tom not see what Summer meant?" People objected then that Zooey Deschanel brought nothing to the table but big, bright eyes and her patent Manic Pixie Dream Girl charm. It wasn't her fault. Summer was meant to be a cipher. She was the obscure object of Tom Hansen's desire because that's all he would let her be. She tried not to be--she was upfront about her intentions, but Tom would have nothing of it. It was necessary for the story. It would be different if we made a movie from her POV. As it is, Summer (and the girl cited in the film's disclaimer) is the fuel to the creative fire. She's meant to be the muse, to stir the imagination. Or as McKenzie, Tom's best friend in the movie said, "The best way to get over girls to turn them into literature." Like Henry Miller did, though that dude slept with a whole lot more of women. Other than that, Summer's affair with Tom was like a pit stop, a minor story arc on the long haul of Summer's "How I Met This Guy Tom Who is Definitely Not Your Father."
Tom's world may have been upended when Summer left, but the loss of faith on love and the universe was only temporary. The dichotomy has been set, reversed and reset to status quo: Young Tom who gleefully burst bubbles became absorbed in his own bubble of romantic fantasies. When those bubbles were burst by Summer, who once believed in wishes, who later became an utter realist, and who dumped him over pancakes. But all would be right again. The key lies in Tom's acceptance on what Summer said: he's pining after the wrong girl. Which implies that there is a "right" one--The One. Something as inevitable as the seasons turning, like Summer turning into Autumn.
*See My So-Called Life. But will credit MTV's Awkward for using the term "DTR" as shorthand for "Defining The Relationship," i.e., "the uncomfortable talk no one wants to have about their dating status."