There's a scene that comes about halfway into Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and very early in the romance between its main characters, Joel and Clementine. After a less than ideal first meeting, Joel visits Clementine at her workplace in search of a second chance, and though she's willing, she also matter-of-factly lays down the ground rules of their fledgling relationship. "Too many guys think I'm a concept or I complete them or I'm going to make them alive," Clementine tells Joel, "but I'm just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind." A beat, and then the two shift character, into the Joel who is deleting his memories of Clementine following the failure of their relationship, and the Clementine in his head, who acts as his tour guide in a nonlinear reenactment of it. Ruefully, Joel admits that he didn't heed Clementine's warning. "I still thought you were going to save me. Even after that."
Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer, from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber, recalls Eternal Sunshine in several important ways. Like Kaufman's film, it is nonlinear story about a romance, told after its failure, but lacking Eternal Sunshine's SFnal component, it holds out no similar hope for a happy ending for Tom, a wannabe architect who writes greeting cards, and Summer, the girl who, over the course of 500 days, he meets, falls desperately in love with, dates for several months, is dumped by, and spends several more months getting over. Perhaps the most important similarity between the two films, however, is that Tom is exactly one of those men Clementine is wary, and weary, of--the kind of who wants the woman in his life to be an adventure and a way of imbuing it with meaning. But then, (500) Days, and Tom, seem to be an amalgamation of so many other romantic comedies and their heroes. Like High Fidelity's Rob, Tom is a man who thinks that compatibility in pop culture likes and dislikes is the same as compatibility of personalities (and perhaps even that those likes and dislikes are a meaningful way of evaluating a person). He's got a bit of Nice Guy about him--his reluctance to acknowledge his feelings for Summer, even when asked point blank, very quickly transitions from charmingly insecure to cowardly and manipulative--and not a small amount of Apatovian man-child.
All of which is to say that (500) Days of Summer is a great deal more unromantic than even its premise and title suggest, and much more than it seems to think it is. It seems almost unkind to criticize a film as eager to charm as this one, but that charm is rooted in the assumption that we, the viewers, will be rooting for Tom and Summer to make it work, to find a loophole in the ending we're promised by the film's beginning. This was not my experience. Almost from their first meeting, it was clear to me that Summer and Tom were poorly suited to one another, and maybe to relationships in general, not only because of the sheer tonnage of neuroses, insecurities, and immaturity that weigh Tom down throughout most of the film, but because Summer is such a complete blank, to him, it seems, almost as much as to us. In the bleak months following their breakup, Tom is advised to get over Summer by following Lawrence Durrell's edict (attributed to Henry Miller) of turning her into art. It's left to us to judge to what degree we should take this as a meta-statement on the film (just as we need to decide how seriously to take the film's opening titles, which promise that any resemblance between its characters and reality is a coincidence, "Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch."), but the fact remains that Summer is much more a work of art, a construct, than a person. Tom, we're told, has been conditioned by pop culture to anticipate The One, and the magical, true love that will accompany her. What matters to him in his relationship with Summer is not who she is, but how that relationship conforms to his image of what love should be like. When Summer brings him to her apartment for the first time and tells him intimate, personal stories about herself, the voiceover drowns her out, telling us how thrilled Tom is to be at this crucial relationship milestone. What's important isn't what Summer is telling him about herself. It's that her stories are capped by what the voiceover calls the six magic words: "I've never told anybody that before."
Nor do we ever get a sense of the nature and tenor of the relationship between Tom and Summer. Even before they become involved, Summer warns Tom that she doesn't believe in love and doesn't want a boyfriend, and no matter how intimate they become she insists that they are merely friends. It's never clear whether she's given him fair warning, or mixed signals. In their last meeting, after her marriage to a man she met shortly after breaking up with Tom, Summer tells him that with her new husband, she knew almost immediately "what I was never sure of with you." Which puts an entirely different spin on the relationship--it's not that Summer didn't believe in love, but that she simply didn't love Tom. So which is it? Is Summer selfish ("you always do what you want," Tom tells her in that last meeting) or just someone who knows what she wants? Is she a user, leading Tom on even though she knows she doesn't love him, or just a fucked-up girl looking for her own piece of mind? We never find out, and don't seem to have been expected to care, and neither, it appears, does Tom. The film's title turns out to be much less of a pun than it at first seems. Summer isn't a person so much as she's a season, a phase, an experience Tom needs to go through.
And hence the failure of the film's attempts to charm, despite throwing every clever storytelling device imaginable at the screen--its nonlinear structure, a counter that ticks back and forth between the 500 days, a voiceover that seems to be imitating Jim Dale's work on Pushing Daisies, a musical scene, a pseudo-documentary, a medley of 70s art-house film parodies expressing Tom's misery after the breakup, fantasy sequences, split-screens, and Tom's wise-cracking ten year old sister, who imparts her worldly wisdom, and the film's morals, to her clueless brother. Romantic comedies work because they provide us with the vicarious thrill of infatuation, making us party to what in real life is a private enchantment that often leaves outsiders befuddled. As Tom puts it, during a burst of greeting card creativity he experiences when things are still going well with Summer, "I Love Us"--it's the entity that the characters create together, the back and forth between them, that is at the heart of a good romantic comedy's appeal. But there is no Us in (500) Days of Summer, no sense that Tom and Summer have created something that transcends the two of them as individuals. We see a few cute scenes between them in its early days, a few rather tepid fights towards its end (despite Summer saying, when she breaks up with Tom, that they fight all the time), but almost nothing of the actual substance of their relationship, and almost no sense of what Tom-and-Summer were like. Without that invitation into the relationship, the vicarious effect of most romantic comedies isn't achieved, and Tom and Summer come off the way real couples do when they, to take examples from the film, sing to each other on their cellphones from adjoining rooms, or compete to see who can yell 'penis' the loudest in a public park--annoying and self-absorbed.
There is, of course, another way of looking at (500) Days of Summer, and that is that for all that he recalls the heroes of many romantic comedies, at his core Tom has more in common with their heroines--the ones who are hopelessly romantic and desperate to find The One, who can't imagine themselves happy without a man, can't believe that any man will want them, and are too caught up in their obsession with romance to notice the men who bring it into their lives. Summer, meanwhile, plays the commitment-phobic, emotionally withdrawn Wrong Man--a reversal that the film stresses in one of its earliest scenes, in which Summer explains that she's breaking up with Tom because they've been fighting like Sid and Nancy, then clarifies that in this analogy, she's Sid. When Summer reveals, in her last meeting with Tom, that she never loved him, what comes to mind is Sally Albright, wailing after making a similar discovery about a man who wouldn't commit to her: "All this time I thought he didn't want to get married. But the truth is, he didn't want to marry me!" If you read the film this way, the fact that Summer isn't really a person becomes less important, because what Tom needs to get over isn't the individual woman but the idea that he needs a woman to be happy, and that fulfillment and a sense of self-worth can only be achieved in the arms of a soulmate.
Even this more satisfying take on the film, however, isn't completely so, because despite the role reversal at its heart, (500) Days of Summer still trades in many of the gendered tropes and assumptions of its genre, making for an uneasy mixture. Summer may not be a person, but she is a weighty presence in the film--far too weighty for someone whose sole purpose is to be the means of achieving the main character's personal growth. As opposed to, say, High Fidelity, which uses Rob's ex-girlfriends to achieve a similar goal and, like (500) Days, sketches those female characters very thinly as a result, (500) Days tries to romanticize Summer. There is a sense that the writers can't help but shift their focus to her, can't keep from making her as charming and adorable as they can. Instead of showing us Tom's infatuation with Summer and using it to illuminate him, they try to make us share that infatuation, and let Tom get lost in the shuffle. More disturbingly, there is the fact that making ciphers out of female characters, treating them like saviors or villains, but never real people, is something that traditional romantic comedies do quite often. (500) Days is using an allegedly anti-sexist role reversal to justify employing sexist tropes.
The biggest problem, however, with reading (500) Days of Summer as Tom's coming of age story is that at the end of the film he hasn't really done so. He's more confident, better able to deal with rejection, and taking steps to improve his life on his own rather than waiting for a woman to give it meaning--great strides all, but despite all of them Tom still hasn't let go of his binary concept of love. In the wake of his breakup with Summer, Tom, like so many other foolish and self-absorbed characters before him, decides that love must not exist, that it is a fantasy dreamed up by greeting card writers like himself. In their last meeting, the now-married Summer tries to dissuade him of this cynicism. It's not that love doesn't exist and that the search for The One is pointless, she tells him. It's just that she wasn't The One. Which is fine as far as it goes, but what neither Tom nor Summer seem to have considered is that it's possible for love to exist and still be entirely unlike what pop songs and, yes, romantic comedies, make it out to be. For all that he's learned, Tom still doesn't realize that love is so much more complicated than his concept of it, and requires, among other things, treating its object as a person rather than a concept.
The relationship between Eternal Sunshine's Joel and Clementine flounders because once the first flush of infatuation fades, they can't deal with the real, messy person they find themselves entangled with, and their decision at the end of the film to try again holds out some hope for success because both acknowledge the inevitability of this disenchantment, and vow to find out what lies beyond it (though in his original script, Kaufman famously undermined this hopeful ending by revealing that Joel and Clementine spend the rest of their lives failing at their romance, erasing their memories of each other, and trying again). Tom, who never reaches that stage in his relationship with Summer, doesn't seem to have realized that it exists, so that when his story ends on what it seems to think is a similar note--Tom meets a new girl (rather sickeningly named Autumn) and the counter that's accompanied his relationship with Summer drops to (1)--it's hard to feel as hopeful as we do at the end of Eternal Sunshine. For all his hard-earned wisdom, there's no indication that Tom has learned not to think of women as concepts, merely that some concepts might not complete him. That's by no means an unusual conclusion for a romantic comedy--the traditional, female-centric often end on this note (though this is also one of the reasons that the genre is generally considered to be such a critical and artistic wasteland)--but (500) Days of Summer has positioned itself as this year's off-beat, intelligent romantic comedy, and it is disappointing to discover that at its heart, it isn't so different from the Hollywood product to which it pretends to offer an alternative.