Alex writes about how we talk about Zooey Deschanel, and how 500 Days of Summer is consistently misunderstood.
If you are in your twenties and knew what Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was before Wilco got mentioned in Funny People, you’re probably at least kind of in love with Zooey Deschanel. I suspect that if posters were a thing people still bought, some giant picture of Deschanel’s visage would be the post-2000 hipster version of the Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster. We all seem to love Deschanel, partially because she’s gorgeous, but mostly because she’s aspirational. It’s not so much that we love the actual star of New Girl though; we just love what we think she represents.
Deschanel has kind of become the embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; she’s some sort of real-life version of Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, except a version with foxier legs who is also significantly less annoying. Deschanel is dry, funny, artistic, fucking adorable, and often looks glamorous in clothes you could conceivably find in Value Village. And she’s in an indie pop band, because of course she is. She’s even named after a goddamn JD Salinger book; this girl might as well have been born with indie cred instead of blood. What us male (and many female) Youth Lagoon fans want is a girl like Deschanel that loves us; what females (and many males) often want is a chance to be as publicly cool as her, and also possibly the opportunity to make out with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in two separate movies!). Except that it’s all a lie, kind of.
Deschanel’s career as a film actress began with Mumford, a decent but forgettable movie that is notable only because there was apparently a time when people in Hollywood thought Loren Dean could be a leading man. Following this, Deschanel appeared in Almost Famous, a Cameron Crowe movie that is notable because – this time – people actually saw it. Deschanel played the older, cool, rebellious sister to Patrick Fugit’s frustratingly saccharine mini-Crowe; her role is far and away the best non-Frances McDormand part of the hopelessly beloved but totally mediocre film. Her career from there continued in a similar fashion, oscillating between decent but inessential indie fare like The Good Girl and Manic to the more standard Hollywood mediocrity on display in Big Trouble, Abandon, and The New Guy. Deschanel’s early career is such an oddly mixed bag that I can’t even definitively point out when I started to actively follow it*. Since then, she has been in movies people forget she was in (Elf, The Happening), movies people forgot existed (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Yes Man), and movies nobody ever really knew about in the first place (Eulogy, Winter Passing). Of course there’s also that movie she’s in that pretty much everybody knows about and for which she is probably best known, even by people who couldn’t tell you the name of the third Doves record… the semi-indie uber-hit of 2009: 500 Days of Summer.
*I’m guessing with The New Guy, partially because I think she sings Mr. Big Stuff in that one, but mostly because ohmagawd she looked so early 2000s cute.
Despite its desperate attempts to become an Annie Hall for people born after the release of Annie Hall, 500 Days of Summer is an exceptionally watchable film. It’s not hilarious by any stretch, but there are a number of funny moments, and the performances are uniformly good to great (with the exception of Clark Gregg’s hairpiece, which somebody really needs to do something about). Visually, the movie is better than stellar. And judging by the large number of imitation videos on YouTube, I’m not the only person who thinks the Expectations/Reality scene is spectacular. The movie follows Tom Hansen (played by sitcom star turned indie hero Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his quest for the mythical One, which he seems to believe is Summer Finn (indie heroine turned sitcom star Deschanel). The movie follows the entirety of their relationship, and we see all the Ikea shopping, pancakes, and Ringo Starr solo records that come with it. Viewed objectively, 500 Days of Summer is not a great movie; sometimes I’m not even confident that it’s good. But its goodness is almost irrelevant, because it is a film rarity. It’s a movie I can’t stop thinking about, and one that only gets more interesting as I continue to do so. What makes the movie truly fascinating, and why the movie will probably remain interesting as years continue to pass, is how it seems to be completely misread, not unlike a younger Tom had his life views misshaped by his own reading of The Graduate*.
*Nobody ever talks about this part of 500 Days of Summer, but it’s paramount to an understanding of the film. In the opening minute of 500 Days of Summer, we are told that Tom’s desire to meet The One is due to a misreading of Mike Nichols’ essential 1967 film. The Graduate displays Benjamin Braddock’s determination in ending up with Elaine Robinson, and Tom appears to decide that this determination is the part of the movie worth focusing on. However, The Graduate is about the general confusion and lack of direction one typically feels upon graduating from university and realizing they have no idea what they want to do with the rest of their lives. (There’s a reason it’s called The Graduate and not The Romantic.) Elaine isn’t necessarily somebody Ben actually loves, although he thinks he does; directing his affections so pointedly at her is simply a way to occupy his time. The final shot of Ben and Elaine on a bus to no defined destination, with looks of confusion on their faces, is proof of this. Tom probably turns The Graduate off just before Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross’ smiles start to fade, not unlike rappers seem to turn Scarface off 23 seconds after Tony Montana yells, “Say hello to my little friend!”
Almost everybody views 500 Days of Summer as a love story, which it isn’t. The movie is about Tom dealing with the unrealistic expectations he puts on girls simply because they know Suedehead is on both Bona Drag and Viva Hate*, not the actual process of falling for female Morrisey fans. It deals with this as well, but the film itself is upfront about its intentions: in the opening introduction, the narrator flatly says, “This is not a love story,” it’s merely a story of boy meets girl. Somehow, viewers seem to forget the first minute of this movie like Tom chose to forget The Graduate’s 104th.
*Just like they probably know an argument about this fact is present in the first track on Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker.
Discussions about 500 Days of Summer tend to focus on how Summer is a terrible person, which certainly seems like a correct statement, until you realize that it isn’t at all. “I can’t tell you how many guys, and girls, are like, ‘You did him wrong!’” Deschanel recently said in an odd New York Magazine profile. “What, she’s a bitch because she didn’t want to date that guy? So? Are we bitches because we have our own opinions? If that makes me a bitch, or that makes women bitches, then maybe we’re all bitches.” The story in the film is told from Tom’s point of view, and since Tom feels wronged, it only seems appropriate that people think Summer – the woman who ostensibly wronged our protagonist – is a bitch, even though she’s not. The actor who plays Tom felt like the movie was misinterpreted as well, albeit for slightly different reasons.
“Well, people tend to say, ‘Why didn’t she end up with him? He was so nice!’ But I think that he was really quite guilty of projecting a fantasy onto this girl that she didn’t necessarily deserve,” Gordon-Levitt recently said. “And that, honestly, he was pretty wrapped up in his own selfish point of view.” This statement is entirely true. Summer may not be what Tom wants her to be, but when Tom’s sister tells him to go back through his memories with Summer, we realize Summer never lied to him. She didn’t want anything serious, and says this early on in their relationship; Tom just kind of made it seem serious by being awful and vaguely psychotic. Tom is the terrible person, and upon thinking about 500 Days of Summer some more, I’ve started to feel like one as well. Maybe we all should.
It’s unlikely that Zooey Deschanel aspired to be perceived as a real life Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or the so-called pin up of Williamsburg. Her filmography is actually much more varied than the perception of her roles seems to be: she has shown up in a number of genres, playing a fairly wide range of character types. Even her role as Jess in FOX’s New Girl is a change from the way she is usually seen: Jess is ridiculous, awkward, a romantic of sorts, and an unironic fan of Dirty Dancing. But people haven’t noticed this, or at least choose to ignore it. There are still enough Deschanel signifiers present that people think it’s just Summer all over again. She’s still wearing cute dresses, we still can’t see her forehead through her bangs, and those awesome oculars aren’t going anywhere. She’s not playing Summer, however… she’s playing a goofier version of Tom. We’re just not seeing it that way.
The idea behind the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – a term coined by the often-hilarious film critic Nathan Rabin – is that they are “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” You can argue that this type of character goes back as far as Helen of Troy, just like you can argue that a male version of the character also exists, usually in movies where a male will stop at nothing to treat the female lead perfectly (see: Lloyd Dobler). There is nothing wrong with the existence of these characters in fiction; if I’m fine with a guy doing some web swinging around Manhattan to save Kirsten Dunst, I can’t deny the type of less superhuman but equally fantastical character Dunst played in Elizabethtown. One could even say that since these people don’t exist in real life, we have a stronger desire for them to exist in our popular culture. After all, that’s likely why I love Transformers; I definitely want to save the world in my Strokes t-shirt, or at least get to loudly yell “BUMBLEBEEEEEE!” in public constantly. The problem comes when people actually think these things can happen in real life, which is where The Zooey Predicament comes into play.
The problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that they aren’t quite crazy enough to obviously be fake; everybody knows Summer’s car is never going to transform into a giant ninja robot, but it’s much easier to believe Summer herself might exist. But even if one were to believe that Summer were a real person, they’re still not taking anything she says at face value. She is a person with her own opinions, like when she decided she no longer wanted to date Tom. Just because her opinions on The Smiths match up with Tom’s doesn’t give him good reason to hate her when her other opinions don’t. It’s always possible that she liked The Queen is Dead more than she ever liked him.
When the topic of Zooey Deschanel comes up in conversation, I usually tend to exclaim something along the lines of, “I love Zooey!” at Bumblebee-esque levels, not unlike many of the people reading this would. I clearly don’t love Deschanel, though. I’ve never met her, nor will I ever, and for reasons that are obvious, one can’t actually be in love with somebody they have never met. So what we’re saying when we say we love Zooey Deschanel is that we love a girl that is impossibly cute, who we imagine has similar interests as us, and who we gather will never be weirded out by the fact that we’re kind of obsessed with media. The only reason we’ll allow ourselves to think the last two points about Deschanel, however, is because we know never meeting her means we’ll never have to be proven wrong.
I recently discovered that Zooey Deschanel is 31 years old. I have no idea why this shocks me, for I have been consciously appreciating her work for nearly a decade, but it does. She just seems like she should be permanently in her twenties… Deschanel seems forever twentysomething, even if she’s entirely too cool to shop at Forever 21. She’s not stuck at the age I feel she should be though, or the age we feel she should be. Deschanel is a human being, and human beings age. She’s not a mythical creature designed to help us define our lives, just like no human ever should be.
As a generation, we are fairly liquid. We’re onto the new thing quicker than makes sense, simply because we want to beat everybody else there… with the exception of our collective infatuation with Deschanel. Almost all of us like her, and in some sort of way aspire to be with her. For some of us, this has been going on for close to a decade, and probably no less than the run of 30 Rock for the rest of us. But Zooey Deschanel is still ahead of us all: she beat us to thirty. It’s totally possible, if not likely, that she is a legitimate grown-up person who reads a newspaper instead of Pitchfork while she drinks her morning tea. She might know your favourite band exists, although maybe only their most notable song. She has her own favourite musicians to spend her time thinking about. Her own music, even. Deschanel has her own tastes, just like everybody else we actually get to meet does. The only way her, or anybody else’s, tastes will ever end up aligning perfectly with ours is when we write them a role in our screenplay, not when we try to structure our life around cinematic tropes. That will only end in painful, uncomfortable disaster. But until we figure that out, we’ll be constantly chasing something that doesn’t exist.