The Hunt For The Worst Movie Of All Time: (500) Days Of Summer

By Gabe Delahaye / November 1, 2010

Let’s be clear about something right at the top: (500) Days of Summer is not the Worst Movie of All Time. Come now. It’s not even the Worst Movie of the past two weeks. That would be Couples Retreat. Nevertheless, it was nominated, and the rules of the Hunt are such that any movie is a potential nominee. That’s the whole point! But it’s not a good movie. Let’s also be clear about that right at the top. It’s actually a pretty bad movie. Far from the worst, but also far from the best. Perhaps its most damnable characteristic is its mediocrity, which it cleverly hides in a thick shell of aesthetic camouflage. Unfortunately, I used up most of my poorly thought-out cliche-filled thoughts about the nature of love-based art last week in the introduction to Couples Retreat, although the fact that I would think the same things after watching both of these movies KIND OF MAKES MY POINT FOR ME. In both instances, the movies purport to explore the complications of love while actually being about something else entirely (free Hawaiian vacation for Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau/free handjob for Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet). And it’s not exactly that there isn’t anything left to say about love, although there probably isn’t anything left to say about love, it’s that saying something INTERESTING about love is hard, and it is much easier to make Speedo jokes, or just have your characters wear hoodies over neckties and talk about The Smiths a lot.

So, Couples Retreat 2: 500 Days Of Couples Retreat, let’s talk about it.

The narrator at the beginning of (500) Days of Summer informs us that this is a story of boy meets girl but that it is NOT a love story. Clever girl. Of course, if it’s not a love story, then what the fuck is it? I’m not sure anyone associated with this movie would actually be able to answer that question, so let’s just move on. Now, the movie is very “cleverly” and “complicatedly” structured, moving back and forth in time to present a portrait of the creation and dissolution of a relationship between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. It’s all very “I still remember the first time I saw Pulp Fiction in film school and it blew my mind.” Hey! Guess what? Pulp Fiction is a great movie, and you could choose much worse movies to use as your narrative-constructionist inspiration. But for our purposes, let’s unfurl and undo the structural complexity and lay things out in a linear plot just to get a sense of what happens: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a would-be architect (OF COURSE HE IS) who is not pursuing his dream of architecture (SPOILER ALERT: he never gets the courage to do so, and he dies at the job he hates) but is instead working at a greeting card company as a copywriter (I’m sorry, what?). All his life, he tells us, he has always dreamed of meeting “the one” and settling down and getting married (I’m sorry, WHAT?). One day, Zooey Deschanel begins working at the greeting card company. Joseph Gordon-Levitt likes her. They both like the music of the Smiths, IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT. Soul mates, I’m sure. At one point Joseph Gordon-Levitt sexually harasses her, but the movie brushes this off and moves on. Joseph Gordon-Levitt decides he doesn’t like Zooey because he is seriously a 14-year-old girl. We don’t see this happen, but he probably deletes his Facebook account, like, three separate times when Zooey doesn’t click “like” on one of his status updates. Anyway, after a drunken night of karaoke during which they have an impossible barfversation about “love,” they start a friendship. Then she kisses him in the copy room. Now they are fucking in the shower. And just as quickly as it begins, it is over, and they are breaking up. Now Joseph Gordon-Levitt is miserable. He wants to get her back. They see each other at a wedding and dance. He goes to a party at her house and learns that she is engaged to another man. He draws some buildings on his bedroom wall with chalk because architecture. Zooey Deschanel sees him on his favorite park bench (sure) and explains that he was right and that true love does exist, but that she just didn’t love him. Then he goes to an interview for a job as an architect and meets Minka Kelly, and we are led to believe that they will get married and never argue about anything and also her name is Autumn because fuck you.

So, just to clarify, Joseph Gordon-Levitt meets Zoey Deschanel. They go on a couple dates. She breaks up with him. He can’t get his shit together. Then he gets his shit together. THE END. I mean, that’s basically it. But with, like, way more Belle and Sebastian references.

The most obvious precedent for (500) Days of Summer (which, seriously, with the parentheses in the title? And I say that as someone who has an insufferable appreciation for parenthetical asides [no duh]), is Amelie. Actually, Amelie isn’t so much a precedent for this movie as it is its blueprint. If Napoleon Dynamite was Rushmore for assholes, then (500) Days of Summer is Amelie for lazy people. The problem, of course, is that Amelie was already Amelie for lazy people. I’m not trying to blow anyone’s minds or shatter anyone’s dreams, but Amelie, too, buried its emotional failings in a weaponized shell of aesthetic armor. The unanswered question in both that movie and this one is: WHY WOULD THESE PEOPLE FALL IN LOVE?

At no point does anyone in (500) Days of Summer do anything that is actually LOVABLE. Zooey Deschanel is certainly a worthwhile object for the male gaze (DING DONG, JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT’S CHARACTER ISN’T THE ONLY ONE WHO’S BEEN TO COLLEGE) but she doesn’t actually DO anything. She rolls around on a bed, which admittedly, is NOT BAD, but she is stand-offish and guarded. Also: all she talks about is how much she doesn’t want a relationship and doesn’t believe in love, which is a perfectly reasonable worldview, but is not a lovable worldview. By the end of the movie we know this about her: she likes The Smiths and pancakes, and she is OK at karaoke. That is literally IT. Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hormonal basket-case. Are we supposed to feel bad for him that his love goes unrequited? Because a) I don’t, and b) I don’t know how you could. It’s not weird that a girl who already explained that she did not want a serious relationship is not head-over-heels about a guy who mainly seems to talk about how badly he wants to be in love, whose most trusted advisor is his precocious 11-year-old sister, and who smashes dishes and grows drunken and sullen and petulant when things don’t go his way. Cool! WHAT A CATCH!

The infamous dance sequence looks a lot different when you think of it NOT as an expression of the fluttery, exhilarating feeling of lightness and joy and everything-being-right-in-the-world that one feels in the presence of burgeoning love, and more as the overblown emotional exaggeration of a needy, narrow-shouldered wimp who just had sex with a girl who’s not even sure whether she likes him or not.

Admittedly, having sex with a girl you’re not even sure likes you or not IS NOT TOO SHABBY. I’m just saying, this scene is ridiculous.

A lot of people really liked (500) Days of Summer, and that makes sense. It’s an exceedingly easy movie to watch. It’s just that easy doesn’t equal good. You know when you’re driving along in the car and Sixpence None the Richer comes on and it’s not until 30 seconds before the song is over that you realize that not only did you listen to the whole song but you were singing along, but that Sixpence None the Richer is fucking terrible? That’s what this is. (500) Days of Summer is the Sixpence None the Richer “Kiss Me” of movies. (Incidentally, when I was looking for the Sixpence None the Richer video, I ended up letting it play for two and a half minutes before remembering to close the tab. I am my own control group!)

There is a moment early in the movie when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s foul-mouthed little sister tells him that “just because she likes the same weird crap as you doesn’t make her your soulmate.” This is a halfway decent point about relationships, but it’s a REALLY good point about this movie. If you strip away the pop culture references and the MTV2 editing, it’s two-dimensional characters with very little in common and a nonsensical rant about greeting cards (as if greeting cards are something we all agree are a problem in this world?). Just because (500) Days of Summer claims to like the same weird crap I like doesn’t make it a good movie. ZING. Ya played yourself, (500) Days of Summer! You look like a punk! (But not as much like a punk as you think.)

Next week: A History of Violence. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.