Monday, January 25, 2010

'A Shitload of Suffering': Live-Blogging (500) Days of Summer, Part Three

We've reached the final chapter of (500) Days of Summer: The Live-Blog (hot on the heels of Part One and Part Two). No time to waste -- let's hop to it!

The plot structure really starts paying off in this half of the movie, beginning when Tom staggers out of the elevator on Day 303 for another enlightening exchange with MacKenzie:

"Henry Miller said the best way to get over a woman is to turn her into literature."
"Yeah, well, that guy had way more sex than me."

Thematically, this bumps immediately into Day 45, when Summer and Tom watch a porno. "That looks pretty doable," she notes.

Every time I see this architecture montage of Tom showing Summer the structures around town I laugh. It reminds me of Steve Martin's quip in L.A. Story: "Some of these buildings are over fifty years old!" It's a nice sequence, though, one that slows the tempo and deepens the themes.

Tom's favorite spot isn't the beach or a snazzy restaurant, but a view from a park bench. Lovely moment when he sketches on Summer's arm.

I don't like the narrator popping in here, when Tom is finally invited inside Summer's apartment. (Took long enough to get there!) This is the one time where it feels intrusive, when we can already see what Tom's thinking on Gordon-Levitt's face.

Tom's pow-wow with his sister on the soccer field includes a zinger that Diablo Cody would envy: "Just some guy with Brad Pitt's face and Jesus's abs."

Gender roles are once again reversed in this car scene. Tom wants to know where their relationship is going; Summer just wants to enjoy the ride. And I love that it's scored to Carla Bruni's "Quelqu'un M'a Dit." That the song is in French underlines the communication gap between them, as does the poetic fade into the tunnel.

We seem to be missing a number of days leading up to "Day 259" -- the fight between Tom and the yuppie prick hitting on Summer at the bar. By this point Tom and Summer act like a bickering married couple, but there's a bit of a gap in how they got to this phase. Actor playing yuppie prick is effective, though. ("This guy? This guy?!")

Tom and Summer's argument is as scabrous as a couple of heated exchanges in Knocked Up, but with more variance in tone, more textures. As Tom leaves, there's a great overhead shot of him descending the staircase that echoes the Vertigo steps. Not that I caught it the first time. Webb's homages are so intrinsic to the story you never feel he's winking at the audience. (If he were less subtle about it, film geeks might be drooling about him a lot more.) Vertigo, of course, is about a man transforming a woman into his idealization of her; (500) Days of Summer is about a man trying to do the same and failing.

You know, I still don't get the point of the "penis" scene.

Day 191: Tom and Summer go to an art exhibit, where they touchingly fumble at trying to interpret the weird pieces they see. Wise choice going to a movie instead. The title on the marquee, Vagiant ("Part Vampire. Part Giant.") is like a random gag out of The Simpsons.

Webb jump-cuts to Day 314, where Tom watches a movie by himself. I read criticisms about the Bergman spoofs, but it's pretty well established by now that Tom's taste in movies (at least when by himself) leans toward the pretentious. Besides, the Persona riff, with repeated variations on the word "suffering," is priceless. (French narrator: "A shitload of suffering is what I'm saying.")

Tom's kindhearted boss, Mr. Vance, is played wonderfully by Clark Gregg, who is normally typecast as scumbags. (He was the sleazy small-town attorney in David Mamet's State and Main.) You expect him to fire Tom over his "job-performance issue," but instead he shows patience and understanding by encouraging Tom to channel his misery into sympathy cards. Gregg also gets one of the best laugh lines in the movie when he reads Tom's Valentine's Day contribution: "Roses are red, violets are blue....Fuck you, whore."

Day 322: The "I love Summer" montage turns into "I hate Summer."

This blind date scene (with the red-haired Rachel Boston) often gets overlooked, yet it's one of the keys to understanding the movie. Alison, from Brown University (again, everyone in L.A. is from somewhere else), gets fed-up with Tom's whining about Summer and asks, "She never cheated on you? She never took advantage of you in any way? And she told you up front that she didn't want a boyfriend?" This is the scene I should have cited to Tom Stempel at The House Next Door when I was trying to suggest that we're not supposed to automatically trust Tom's viewpoint about Summer. He didn't have the foggiest idea what I was talking about, so I hope it's clearer here.

The whole train-trip/wedding sequence builds to the moment when Summer opts to dance with Tom, a questionable decision that made a girl I know -- who did something relatively similar to a mutual friend -- hate her character.

Note to self: Buy milk.

Expectations vs. Reality: the most brilliant sequence in the movie, and the most innovative use of split-screen I can remember. (Regina Spektor also returns, this time with "Hero.") I like how, early in "Expectations," Tom waves to somebody he knows at the party. In "Reality," of course, he's alone. This sequence also climaxes with an American Splendor touch: Tom runs into the street, which freezes into an architectural sketch, which is in turn erased.

And here's a possible nod to Groundhog Day -- repeated close-ups of a blaring alarm clock. Followed by another instance of Gordon-Levitt's impeccable comic timing: a disheveled Tom yells at a random couple holding hands to "get a room." Webb, Neustadter and Weber really thread the needle in terms of making Tom's misery the stuff of comedy. Somebody once said that "love is the seasickness of emotions: you think you're going to die, and everyone else thinks it's funny."

The company pitch meeting, ending with Tom's epiphany, is interesting in that Tom's indictment, while strong, is also overblown. (There's even a parody of a slow-clap.) He works with good people, not cartoonish office stereotypes. In a way, Tom's job is for him what he is for Summer: not a bad thing, just not the right thing.

Strange that as he leaves the building, we finally learn the company's name, and it's New Hampshire Greetings! That sense of displacement again. Also interesting, in a story about not putting a label on things, that we often don't get the "labels" (the name of the company, the park, the city) until after we're already familiar with the "product."

Flashback to Summer's breakdown at the end of The Graduate (easily Deschanel's best scene). She apparently concurs with Mike Nichols' pessimistic interpretation. Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" is a canny music choice: it's a song that you might think was in the original movie but wasn't. It helps us see this familiar scene with a fresh perspective.

Another great (and not too familiar) song choice -- "Vagabond" by Wolfmother -- for Tom getting his groove back. I like that Webb conveys this visually via Tom bouncing a tennis ball to the beat. It's also refreshing to see a movie where the hero doesn't bounce back too quickly. We see Tom developing ideas, revising them, trying new ones, going to interviews, learning how to deal with rejection. And it ends with another great split-screen shot of Tom alone on a bus while Summer gets married. (Anyone else expect him to crash the wedding as Ben Braddock did in The Graduate?)

Finally back to Day 488, where we started, only now with the right context. A very well-written and -acted scene, notable for Tom not being too angry with Summer, yet not letting her off easy either. "You just do whatever you want, don't you?" is his pointed reaction to why she danced with him at their co-worker's wedding, and it's a valid one. I'm less persuaded by her argument that Tom's former ideas about destiny and soul-mates were right all along. (More on this momentarily.) It is a nice touch, though, that they've essentially switched places, Tom the cynic and Summer the romantic.

Some who take Summer's point-of-view at face-value have gotten furious at the final scene, where Tom appears to find his soul-mate when he's not looking for her. Maybe that's what the filmmakers intended, but my reading is that they're driving at something slightly more ambiguous. We don't know that Summer's marriage will survive, nor is it clear that a relationship between two rivals over the same job will work out. I see the last shot of the time-counter going from "500" to "1" as optimistic in the sense that Tom's ready to start again. Yet the new girl's name -- Autumn -- is also a terrific cosmic joke.

Final thoughts: I love the emphasis on the building's vast interior space in the final scene, emphasized by the overhead shot of Tom walking in for his interview. And there's a curious shot when Tom enters the elevator, an almost loving close-up of the pulley bringing him upstairs. Read into that what you will, but for me it's as if Webb is implying that Tom finally understands the inner workings of relationships, that at last he sees the gears shifting.

A movie written by two men and directed by a third could have easily degenerated into a misogynistic hate-fest. Instead, I think they kept each other honest, and made (500) Days of Summer a wonderful movie.

Thanks for reading.



Kevin J. Olson said...

This was a fantastic read, Craig. Kudos to you, sir. The Reality vs. Expectations scene is, as you correctly state, the real winner of the's the most memorable part of a movie I had problems with, but ultimately loved; and that scene was a big reason why.

I'm also glad you touched on the scene where Summer breaks down after watching The Graduate. It's Deschanel's best moment, as you mention, and it makes sense that the film would resonate so deeply with her.

This was fun to read. I hope you do it again.

Craig said...

Thanks again, Kevin, for reading and for all your comments. This was a fun experiment, particularly with a comedy, a genre that's too often dismissed as having any value. Plenty of capable writers out there cover the auteurs quite adeptly, so I wanted to do something different there too. Glad you enjoyed it.

jeremythecritic said...

This was a great analysis and a fun read--all three parts. You pointed out many things I didn't notice initially. Like you, I enjoyed it a lot the first time but feared a rewatch after all the backlash started. So few movies hold up well on second viewings so it's good to hear this does. Can't wait to give it another go.

It's fittingly ironic that like The Graduate this has an ending that's ambiguous and could be interpreted in a few different ways. Definitely not the lightweigeht rom-com it's been unfairly labeled as. A lot of ideas are challenged as you pointed out. Great insights!

Craig said...

Good to hear from you, Jeremy. You're right about the parallels between the endings of both movies, additionally because both may be a case of each filmmaker having his own intentions negated somewhat by how the bigger picture plays out onscreen. I personally see "(500) Days" as having a happy ending, just not necessarily the way it was intended. I look forward to the director's commentary to find out.

Ronak M Soni said...

Hello, Craig, I just stumbled across your blog today, and I'm loving it.
This live-blogging idea is superb.

Most of what you say (apart from the stuff about movie references and the music) were rather obvious to me.
I don't want to insult your intelligence or anything (in fact, singling out the obvious is not exactly easy to do), just that I'm somewhat astounded you thought it was stuff no one had got even an inkling of.

One more thing I loved was how the reality-expectations split-screen ended, like looking around a corner.

Btw, the 'Bergman spoof' scene also has stuff from Jules and Jim (that unforgettable narration voice), and I thought it worked remarkably well.

Craig said...

Thanks for weighing in, Ronak. Replying to one observation, I didn't mean to suggest that "no one had an inkling" of things I was pointing out. I was suggesting that a lot of professional film critics didn't seem to get what the movie was doing, that to them it was just another rom-com. As I wrote at the start of Part One, based on what I've been reading and hearing, general audiences seemed to have a better grasp and appreciation of the film.

Different kind of movie altogether, but another example would be The Shawshank Redemption, which got a lot of ho-hum reviews upon its original release before building its reputation with viewers over the years. I have a sense (500) Days of Summer may do the same thing.

Ronak M Soni said...
It's already in the top 250. (That's why I watched it, because any movie which makes its way into that but stays under 200 is probably not there because of hype.)

About that no one had an 'inkling' thing, I more or less said it as a sense I got.

Edward Copeland said...

Wonderful series on a wonderful film. I finally got around to watching it a second time so I could write a piece to try to do it justice in case you haven't read it yet.

Craig said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ed. I'm looking forward to reading your piece.

Ariana A Longley said...

I also noticed near the end, Tom's clothing changed as he went from job to job interview. Kind of as a way of showing he is growing up. He jells his hair, gets a new suit, and fixes himself up.
But he is still carrying around his old canvas bag until he meets Summer at the park bench. I think that's a way of saying that Tom was still carrying around old baggage with him. After the talk they had, he got a new brief case.
Kind of as to say that he was cleared of old ghosts and ready to start a new.

Anonymous said...

Re: the point of the "penis" scene.

The point of the "penis" scene is that Summer does not usually feel comfortable in a relationship, but at that moment with Tom she feels comfortable enough to just let go and be silly. So I guess there is not point of the "penis" scene, except that it's just Summer and Tom being silly together and coming up with an inside joke that is only shared between the two of them, and the meaning of the joke is understood between the two of them, and whenever the word "penis" is spoken by one of them, it will remind them of that moment of silliness they shared together. It will make them laugh every time it's recalled because it will make them think of THAT moment, and it is recalled once more in the movie: in the wedding scene Summer and Tom are sitting together and suddenly, out of nowhere, Summer leans over and whispers "penis", making Tom laugh. So, to sum up, the "penis" scene is just an example of a silly inside joke that you share with THAT particular person that has a special meaning for both of you not in itself (it could have been any word other than "penis"), but because of the person you're with when you came up with that joke.