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."
- "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?"
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."
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.