The fact is that I could love (500) Days of Summer if it weren't for the story, and for Summer herself. But it's not as if the film wasn't fair: the narrator told us right from the start that Summer was no ordinary girl, and that this is not a love story. So it's somewhat our fault for reading genre conventions into it in the first place. That it breaks free of the litany of typical romcom fair, bursting out of its own conventions, should be applauded, not boo'd. So now instead of saying I hate it, I say, "I love to hate this film."
In fact I love to hate it so much that I bought a used copy for $4 BIG BUCKS at Blockbuster.
(Cheaper than a BB rental, I might add.)
Outside of the heartbreaking, and (I still think) in some ways unfair, story -- and outside of the problematic nature of Summer herself -- there are so many good and fun things that happen here that it's actually quite hard to keep up with and list them all at once. It really does defy some of its own genre tradition, and I rather like that. It doesn't feel like you can smack a label on it. I like that, too. The undefinable quality might actually be one reason I initially reacted to it with such angst.
But what is it, if it really isn't a tried and true romcom? Like Citizen Kane, it belongs to no contemporary genre of its time. Like Pulp Fiction, the narrative shapes around a splintered and jumping timeline. Like the French New Wave, Godard in particular, it's exuberant in cinematic terms, at times tip-toeing the line of all out expressionism. And like my favorite famous Dane (whose initials are Lars.von.Trier.), it simply screams to be noticed, and will sometimes even turn a trick or two to grab the eye.
I don't know exactly what to call it, but after a second and third viewing some things have crept up that I like:
*The Roving Timeline. It moves forward and backward, from sorrow to joy and back, from darkness to light and into the grays. We get the idea that this is bookended to our dissatisfaction. It doesn't make the ride any less enjoyable.
* The ability to parody and self-parody. The dance number in particular just drives me nuts with love and admiration, particularly the little animated blue bird. It's the cheesiest, sunniest, happiest dance number I know of. (All of that in a truly funny and splendid way.)
* The Godard-and-Bergmanesque films within the film.
* The split screen, which is seen as the expectations vs. reality. Two stories are told at once: one, the fictional, all things hoped for -- the other, the actual, the "how it all went down." The screen is playing with the mind, creating a maze of havoc in the brain as we watch the "hope" and the "actual" play out in dual realities...
* And then, just after that, the image of Tom walking away from the party. He slides into a gradual freeze and the picture descends into still frame, like an old photo. (I know this last scene is a tip of the hat to something, somewhere, I'm not quite sure just what.)
* The dry bits of comedy. "I'm stalking -- I mean, I'm starving!" Summer's smile and her feminine beauty even amidst the desire to hate her brings out a comedic tension that keeps us guessing. But, to quote Monaco when he wrote about Kramer vs. Kramer: "The woman... was, if not actually the villain, then certainly the source of the problem, and the focus was almost entirely on the sensitive and painful reaction of the man." Some of this pain is a little easier to swallow when watching Tom and his friends caught in a black and white documentary about their love lives. Comedic moments turn up time and again, which lessen the severity of the final blow.
* The soundtrack. Like the recent Whip It, or any good episode of House, a good soundtrack has the capacity to improve the material around it. Here it succeeds, and I've got some new tunes to hunt down.
* "Autumn." Yes, it is a bit corny, but it fits. And the coy little smile and the courtesy nod at the camera? That super old trick of moldy cheese from TV of ages past? Yeah, we get it. Ain't it all just so darn cute.
Like a novel about writing a novel or a movie about making a movie, (500) Days of Summer is actually the anti-romcom, eager to beat the platicity of any other romcom into submission. It tells us Harry won't get to be with Sally, the Pretty Woman won't get Richard Gere, Clara Bow ain't all that "It" after all, and Nurse Betty will live alone and remain a nutter butter. The audience that rooted for the happy ending will leave empty handed and only the critics will wake up to take notice of the film as an anti-sensitive movie that defied even its target market.
It's like a giant middle finger to college kids hoping for a decent spouse.
In many ways, (500) Days of Summer feels like it knows it succeeds if you hate it. I've not loved hating a film this much in quite some time.