(500) Days of Summer with, as a bonus, Alain de Botton's On Love

(500) Days of Summer is about the mating habits of angsty hipsters. Said hipsters are endlessly concerned with the nature of love in a deep, romantic fashion when they should be thinking more about the mechanics of how and why someone is actually attracted to another person. To heal the anxiety that hipsters feel about attraction and love, I would prescribe Belle de Jour, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which, taken together, remind one that the important thing about love is having enough game to get someone else to love you, not merely mooning over another person—which is more likely to drive them away than attract them.

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom does the mooning and Summer is indifferent and perhaps callous to his puppyish attention. Tom wants romance so bad that his 11-year-old sister says, “Easy Tom. Don’t be a pussy” at one point. We’re thinking the same thing, although perhaps not in those words, which are given to the sister chiefly, I assume, for getting a laugh out of the incongruity of hearing her say them. In the next scene, Tom asks Summer, “What are we doing?” The better question, at least for the audience, is, “Should we care?” If Tom doesn’t get with Summer—who manifests no special or particular interests, talents, abilities, thoughts, capability, or expertise—there are another thousand girls right behind her, exactly like her, who are also part of the quirk genre, as described in the linked Atlantic article:

As an aesthetic principle, quirk is an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions (on HBO’s recent indie-cred comedy Flight of the Conchords, the titular folk-rock duo have one fan), and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits. Quirk takes not mattering very seriously.

Quirk is odd, but not too odd. That would take us all the way to weird, and there someone might get hurt.

Over time, quirk gets boring and reminds you why you like the real feeling of, say, King Lear, or the plot of The Usual Suspects. The mopey plight of undifferentiated office workers is less compelling, and, once sufficiently repeated, it feels like disposable culture: another story about two modern people with no serious threats to their existence save the self-imposed ones that arise chiefly from their minds.

Love stories about the relatively pampered can work: I watched (500) Days of Summer because a bunch of students mentioned it in relation to Alain de Botton’s On Love. But the novel is better: a philosophically minded and self-aware narrator is fascinating precisely because he is aware of the ridiculousness of his own predicament and the randomness of love. He has a therapist and a philosophy professor in his mind. The dichotomy between how he should feel (she’s just another girl) and how he does (transformed through love!) fuels much of the comedy, as does the narrator’s tendency toward self-sabotage thanks to Marxism as applied to love: he would never want to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. Tom would, apparently, sign up to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. His lack of interiority makes him boring. His lack of exteriority makes the movie boring.

Whoever wrote (500) Days of Summer must have read On Love (Tom is a wannabe architect and gives Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness as a gift) and wanted to do a film version, or at least steal from it. Stealing from On Love, by the way, is a brilliant idea: the novel still leaves much territory to be explored, and it’s probably impossible to draw a complete map to represent the problems that love provide. But the interior commentary that makes the novel special can’t be effectively represented on screen. So we’re stuck with two people whose averageness is painful and unleavened by any real sense of awareness of their own situation. One of my favorite passages from On Love goes:

But there wasn’t much adventure or struggle around to be had. The world that Chloe and I lived in had largely been stripped of possibilities for epic conflict. Our parents didn’t care, the jungle had been tamed, society its disapproval behind universal tolerance, restaurants stayed open late, credit cards were accepted almost everywhere, and sex was a duty, not a crime.

On Love is acknowledging that the stuff that makes good fiction has largely been evacuated from modern love stories. In doing so, I laughed with recognition and at the narrator’s neuroticism about his own love stories. Moments like this abound in On Love and make it such a wonderful novel. Moments like this are absent in (500) Days of Summer, which make it a tedious movie.

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