August 11, 2009

Unlucky in Love - or Maybe Just Unaware?

Come on, Tom, get real...

An excerpt from the official synopsis for (500) Days of Summer:
  • "Tom, the boy, still believes, even in this cynical modern world, in the notion of a transforming, cosmically destined, lightning-strikes-once kind of love. Summer, the girl, doesn’t. Not at all. But that doesn’t stop Tom from going after her, again and again, like a modern Don Quixote, with all his might and courage. Suddenly, Tom is in love not just with a lovely, witty, intelligent woman – not that he minds any of that -- but with the very idea of Summer, the very idea of a love that still has the power to shock the heart and stop the world."
An excerpt from the official synopsis for Paper Heart:
  • "Charlyne Yi does not believe in love. Or so she says. Well, at the very least, she doesn’t believe in fairy-tale love or the Hollywood mythology of love, and her own experiences have turned her into yet another modern-day skeptic. Paper Heart follows Charlyne as she embarks on a quest across America to make a documentary about the one subject she doesn’t fully understand. As she and her good friend (and director) Nicholas search for answers and advice about love, Charlyne talks with friends and strangers, scientists, bikers, romance novelists, and children. They each offer diverse views on modern romance, as well as various answers to the age-old question: does true love really exist?"
Really? Are people still asking this age-old question? Yawn.

It's common knowledge that nearly every song ever written is, at its roots, about love in some way, shape, or form. Listen to the next song you hear, and chances are high you can tie love into it without thinking too hard. But as much as all of these songs are saying the same things about the same thing, you wouldn't necessarily call all songs the same, right? Neither would I.

Increasingly, however, I'm finding it difficult to apply the same logic to romantic comedies. Last year I opined that the genre was all but dead in the water (leading to the downfall of several careers, including Meg Ryan's). That was probably a bad generalization and wasn't entirely fair, since I really liked several 2008 films that could loosely be considered romantic comedies, including The Grocer's Son, Priceless, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but maybe it was the lack of pretense in those movies that allowed me to fully enjoy them, and maybe it's the lack of maturity in Paper Heart and (500) Days of Summer that prevented me from fully enjoying them. They splashed new style onto the genre's canvas, but ultimately they're just like any of the other passable but meaningless romantic comedies that have come out in the last 30 years. To be more blunt, both Paper Heart and (500) Days of Summer are much more concerned with style and soundtracks than sentiment and substance.

Is it unfair to fault them for not adding literally anything new to the discussion about love? Maybe not, but on the same token I'd say it's unfair to disproportionately praise their effort when they both fail at making any significant statement about life's greatest mystery. Yi stated the obvious in a recent interview (remember that the thesis of her film is to find out if "true love really exists"): "I don’t think I have any more of an idea of what it is or how to define it than I did before I went on the road."

Ya think?

I'm not an expert on love or relationships, and neither is anyone else, but I couldn't resist the temptation to tell these characters to just grow up. Maybe it's because I just got back from a good friend's wedding, or because I'm recently engaged myself, or maybe it's because I'm as befuddled by the mysteries of love as everyone else. Whatever the case, it's just not as fun at this stage in my life to continuing watching movies featuring such juvenile characters (a descriptor for any age - see Elegy) fumble around looking for love in all the wrong places. If there is a difference between (500) Days of Summer and Paper Heart and any CW or MTV show (reality or scripted) starring and targeted toward college freshman, I'm not seeing it.

From my personal experience, the only absolute certainty about "true love" is that it can only exist in the space created when you swallow your selfish pride and fill the gaping hole with genuine humility. It also helps to possess a sense of self-awareness: the ability - and also desire - to see yourself as others do and, more importantly, see the dynamics of your relationship in the same way as the other person.

In the case of Tom in (500) Days of Summer, that might mean actually understanding, not just passively accepting, that Summer has no interest in a future with you. In the case of Charlyne in Paper Heart, that might mean watching the footage of yourself talking with children on a playground and asking yourself why your interactions with them are so natural and comfortable, and how that might spell doom for your future relationships with people who are trying to act like adults.

But these issues are glossed over in these two movies because there are other agendas at stake. (500) Days of Summer is desperately, yet failingly, attempting to escape its identity as just another enjoyably quirky romantic comedy that will come and go as quickly as Garden State did. Paper Heart, meanwhile, seems much more interested in creating a new "documentary" film genre (fake acting, real interviews) than actually having its characters develop in any meaningful way.

Maybe I've gone a little overboard whining about two movies that are enjoyably harmless, but despite their flair, both of them settled with me as simply sophomoric on the subject of love.


  1. Daniel: I thought I loved you. Now I'm not sure.

    Only kidding.

    While your take here might be a touch strong, it's an honest reaction, and that's the way you write it, and that's why it works. There are too many critics (unpaid and paid) who are scared to write from the heart. So kudos there.

    The only flaw I see in your argument that if you're done watching people grapple with love, then what's left? Stories of grappling with life and death, with truth and lies, with risk and complacency, etc. But, of course, those have all been done before, too.

    Then again, so much of the joy of movies is that they play differently over time, due in part to the evolution (want to avoid saying maturation, as some don't actually "mature") of the person watching them. In so many cases, that means a film that you once dismissed now seems trenchant. But that doesn't mean that feeling lasts. To see The Graduate at 14 would be different than seeing it at 24 and 44, and so on.

    I guess the point is: If we can grow into movies, we can of course grow out of them. Many movie fans agree on the latter, but they tend to apply that to sophomoric comedies or explosion-heavy blockbusters. No reason it couldn't also apply here.

  2. Congratulations on your engagement!

    I enjoyed your passionate post here. I'm not a big fan of romantic comedies; just not my favorite genre at all! But I enjoyed (500) Days and I think it does have depth. I think it does show that Tom's passion is clouding his vision and it leads him to the fall. And Summer is an intricate character. I wanted to add more about her in my post but I hadn't really articulated it in my head yet. She is so not the right person for Tom. She gives him warnings, but she still engages in the fun - like experimenting with sexual positions in the shower - which is fun that perhaps she didn't have a right to engage in with him, knowing how he feels. Perhaps, in some ways, she is a dangerous character. Perhaps she should have had the strength to break it off at the beginning, knowing what she knew. As it is, even though she warns him, she kind of takes advantage of him. So I see depth in her character and in the relationship in which they engage. I think it's realistic - I've been there - so that must be a kind of depth.

  3. Jason, I'm definitely letting loose with my feelings on this one and it feels right, so thanks for noticing. It's what blogs are for, after all.

    You rightly found the hole in my argument (if you can even call it an argument), and I should admit that what separates these two movies from others is not quality or even depth, but really my personal reactions to them. I absolutely would have experience (500) Days of Summer MUCH differently a decade ago, and, like most guys, I certainly have had my share of "Tom" disappointments over the years.

    But not the recent years - whether I found love or love found me or however you want to describe it, I also matured, and I recognized my quirks and "flaws", and I learned to be humble, and to begin to think about what I offer to others, not just what they offer me.

    So yeah, long story short, I'm not really in a place right now where I can relate to Tom or Charlyne, and I personally doubt they're going to find what they're looking for by continuing the status quo.

    Hokahey, thank you very much. We've been engaged for about a month and are now entering the wonderful world of wedding planning. Now I get to watch all of those movies in a new way (The Wedding Planner, Father of the Bride, etc., etc., etc.), or for the first time...

    I was actually just over at your place reading your review of (500) Days, and I completely agree and completely disagree with you on two points.

    I'm right with you on your thoughts about Summer here, and to the extent that she understood what was going on, I almost respected her more than Tom (but not really, because she wasn't being honest).

    But I disagree that Tom took anything away from his experience, aside from maybe a renewed belief in fate, which may again cloud his vision this next go round. I don't think he accepted what happened with Summer, he just coped. I've been there as well and in hindsight it's easy to see what would have worked out for the best, but with Tom, well I just feel like he'll continue to think of Summer as the one that got away, and without understanding how she "got away" or that she was never right in the first place, it's unlikely his next relationship will fare any better.

  4. I didn't see Paper Heart so I can't comment on that. Though I spent at least an hour of (500)Days actively disliking it, as I've said elsewhere I think it redeemed itself in the final scenes. I don't think Tom just passively accepts that Summer is not the one for him, I think he really "gets" it and that's the whole point of the movie. I think it's also implied by his newly refound verve for architecture that he's also learned not to define himself in terms of his relationship with another person, but to define himself first in his own terms.

    Two valuable lessons I think people need to learn before they find satisfactory love.

    If not for the ending, I'd say (500) Days was likable but mostly forettable. As it is, I think it's a teeny bit better than you're giving it credit for.

  5. Daniel, thanks for the response. Thanks for the comments on my post. I do suggest that the ending is ambiguous and that Tom will make the same mistake with his next relationship.

  6. Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: None, until the lightbulb really wants to change.

    One thing that can be said of many films is that they strive to force the main character to change because it's good for the plot, audiences expect growth.

    I rather admire films that allow their characters to remain stubbornly who they are, because my experience with people is that even when they want to change and work on their behaviors, their personalities remain relatively fixed. One of my favorite comedy/romance/mysteries is Zero Effect. Kim Dickens character, a paramedic, moves into action to save the life of someone she loathes. Why asks Bill Pullman's character, Darryl Zero? A person can't change their nature, she replies. And though we sense that Zero has fallen for Dickens, they do not go off into the sunset because he can't change his nature either.

  7. Craig, (500) Days (I'm continuing to use the ridiculous parentheses to show ridiculous they are) definitely was saved in large part by the final scene, but I maybe I misinterpreted that twinkle in his eye at the end as excitement about Autumn when it was really a knowing skepticism. That's the point you and Hokahey agree on, and to the extent that it is a fairly ambiguous ending, I can't say you're wrong.

    You also bring up a great point about the architecture, and if that was actually a personal development project and not a coping mechanism to distract himself, then a good lesson was learned.

    Hokahey, I need to read the comments after your review more closely and chime in there.

    Marilyn, what if the lightbulb was a spiraled, multi-colored LED that flashed on and off and made noises? That's kind of how I saw these two movies - more concerned about distracting from the question and entertaining the viewer than anything else, including "changing" the characters.

    I haven't seen Zero Effect but I understand and agree with your admiration for films with clear directions and understandings of their character. I thought both (500) Days and PH lacked this, especially the latter. The characters never got to the point where they had to accept who they were because they never found out who they were in the first place (maybe an arguable point with (500) Days, as evidenced above).

    But honestly, the use of parentheses in that title is unacceptable - just a reminder of how annoying that day counter was throughout the whole movie.

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  9. First off, congrats of the recent engagement!

    Second, I found true love when I watched 500 Days of Summer. Now 500 Days of Summer and I have been together for several months and things are going great. We met at Sundance and I rushed home to tell all my friends about her. I'll never forget how we laughed, sang, and danced together. I recently ran into her again (at a movie theater again! Go figure!) and we has an equally wonderful time. Sorry you and her didn't hit it off like she and I did but that's life, right? Glad to hear you're doing well though.

    He Shot Cyrus

  10. Thanks, Scott, and give my best to (500) Days of Summer when you see her again. We had a pleasant conversation and I giggled a few times, but I think I'd rather hang out with her in a group of friends than go on a solo date...


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