Dream Girls: (500) Days of Summer

If you’re anything like me, you coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in the first entry in your My Year of Flops column back in 2007 and have been desperately looking for a way to monetize that achievement as the phrase conquered the pop-culture landscape while your career nose-dived.

To that end, I am proudly, and also semi-abashedly, introducing “Dream Girls”, a new column based on a very old idea where I allow this site’s Patreon donors to choose which of two seminal Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies I will see and then write about. 

For this first column, I gave patrons a choice between Paper Towns and (500) Days of Summer. Readers chose (500) Days of Summer, which is good, because I fear a negative review of Paper Towns could only exacerbate my feud with John Green. I would like to de-escalate it before it leads to violence, as in the similar conflict between 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. 

As the dude who coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” you would imagine that I would be more curious about a movie, and a pop icon synonymous with the phrase and conceit like (500) Days of Summer and Zooey Deschanel. 

Eh, you'll get over it. We all do. 

Eh, you'll get over it. We all do. 

Though I coined the phrase after Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Deschanel is the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl, for better or worse. Bringing the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” into the world has made me feel like Dr. Frankenstein at times. There have been moments I felt abject horror at how my weird little baby hasbeen received and interpreted. 

But I’m not Dr. Frankenstein, really, in this whole scenario. I’m more like the first doofus to say, “Hey, that new monster is like a lady version of that giant dead-person Frankenstein! Let’s call her Bride of Frankenstein” and then collect unearned kudos for coining the phrase “Bride of Frankenstein.” 

While putting off watching (500) Days of Summer to the point where I happily slotted Norbit ahead of it in my queue, I came to a realization that explains why it’s taken me eight years to finally watch a movie married forever in the public imagination to an archetype I coined. 

I did not coin the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” because I love romantic comedies and wanted to point out something honorable and true that they did well. That’s not my relationship with romantic comedies at all. It would be closer to say that, with some very notable exceptions, I strongly dislike romantic comedies. I find them gimmicky, fake, sexist, problematic and fundamentally dishonest. I coined the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to call out a particularly toxic, dishonest and ubiquitous fiction promoted by romantic comedies, namely that women exist exclusively to cheer up mopey male sad sacks, and have no real agency or drive or will of their own. 

By the time (500) Days of Summer was released to wildly conflicting reviews, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl had acquired the kind of cultural cachet and currency that makers of many romantic comedies, but specifically makers of twee, precious romantic comedies, had to confront the archetype, either within the movie itself, or in interviews. 

(500) Days of Summer did both. In interviews, the filmmakers discussed how they subverted the trope in their film. Accordingly enough, Zooey Deschanel’s excitable elfin fantasy lady more or less tells the movie’s sad-sack protagonist Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that she will not be his Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She bluntly informs him that while he may have all kinds of fantasies and delusions and hopes rooted in the romanticized, idealized, poisonously fake conception of love and sex found in Cameron Crowe and Zach Braff movies, she has no interest in being his muse, girlfriend, soulmate, wife and bashert. She straight-up tells him not to fall in love with her because doing so will only break his heart. 

Would it blow your mind if I told you these characters both like The Smiths?

Would it blow your mind if I told you these characters both like The Smiths?

Tom, being a mopey white dude in love with a woman who looks exactly like Zooey Deschanel, interprets that as “Fall in love with me immediately, as I am your muse, girlfriend, soulmate, wife and bashert.” (500) Days of Summer starts off by informing us that what we are about to see is not a love story. In that respect, both the movie and Summer herself (that’s Deschanel’s name) manage the strange dual feat of being at once bracingly, refreshingly honest about their intentions and weirdly manipulative and dishonest. 

The movie begins with Tom at a low ebb. He is destroyed by the latest and most brutal disappointment in his relationship with Summer, a coworker at a business where he writes greeting cards. This, incidentally, marks the third film I’ve seen about protagonists who write either greeting cards or personal letters, after the far superior Her and Girlfriend’s Day. 

In our world, a tiny percentage of the populace is employed writing greeting cards. In movies involving characters who may or may not be Manic Pixie Dream Girls, however, it seems like a good ten percent of the public is employed by the greeting card industry, particularly if they are hyper-sensitive and destined to fall in love with the wrong woman or operating system. 

To its credit, (500) Days of Summer continually highlights its artificiality. We’re never allowed to forget that what we’re watching is not the story of two human beings who might exist in our world but rather a movie-movie about people who see their lives through the prism of New Wave masterpieces, J.D Salinger novellas (those novels are too fucking commercial, bro!) and Hollywood musicals. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to sit back and have its characters watch other movies, most notably The Graduate, so that it can steal from some of their iconic power. 

(500) Days of Summer is self-aware enough to acknowledge, implicitly, at least, that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is one of the prisms through which its characters distort the world. And it knows just how toxic and sexist and unfair the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is. So one level it is telling us in so many ways not to identify with Tom because he is selfish and self-pitying, and filled with incoherent rage at the universe that Deschanel establishes clear, if confusing boundaries with him. 

The movie tells us that romantic comedies are lies, and that love stories are lies as well, then invites us to become emotionally invested in the love story at the core of its romantic comedy. (500) Days of Summer discourages us from identifying too strongly with Tom and his inability to deal with the complicated, frustrating reality of Summer as opposed to the fantasy version of her that exists inside his head. 

Yet because Tom is played by the preternaturally adorable Joseph-Gordon Levitt, and is the hero of a very pretty movie full of emotional music and beautiful people, we are programmed by convention to root for Tom all the same, because the female romantic lead is always supposed to end up with the male romantic lead or what the hell kind of romantic comedy are they in? 

(500) Days of Summer would like to be a different kind of romantic comedy, and a different kind of love story, and a different kind of movie about Manic Pixie Dream Girls and the strange, fraught, impossible place they occupy in the minds of sensitive, lonely young men with vague literary ambitions and sensibilities, and on some level it is. Yet it can’t quite figure out what it wants to say. (500) Days of Summer sets out to be the ultimate romantic comedy and the ultimate anti-romantic comedy and ends up as a fascinatingly confused, if intermittently inspired example of both beasts. 

The movie is twee personified yet it’s far more bearable than it really has any right to be. Much of it comes down to casting. Deschanel is irresistible and unknowable, the incandescent light the movie revolves around. Gordon-Levitt makes a character who is misogynistic and petty, selfish and imprisoned by his narcissistic delusions sympathetic in spite of himself. 

Gotta admit that the scene where they see Norbit was an unexpected delight.

Gotta admit that the scene where they see Norbit was an unexpected delight.

If we root for Tom, it’s partially because we’re supposed to root for a romantic lead to get what he wants, even if he doesn’t deserve it, even if he’s been told in no uncertain terms over the course of the film why he’s not going to get it, but it’s also because we root for Gordon-Levitt as an unusually likable and charismatic actor. 

I briefly ran into Gordon-Levitt many years ago, almost literally, when I stumbled into him at a function thrown by his HitRecord organization at Sundance. He was so tiny and adorable, I just wanted to scoop him up, put him in my pocket and take him home, and not in a weird sexual way or anything. He just seems like a wonderful little sprite of a man, and in another context, he would be the one playing the Manic Pixie fantasy figure. 

Speaking of twee the movie’s structure has Tom telling the story of his fractured romance with Summer to a support system that includes a weirdly miscast Geoffrey Arend in the Dan Fogler role of the horny best friend and the hero’s sister, who is played by a very young Chloe Grace Moretz. Cast an adorable, lisping child actress in the role and (500) Days of Summer realizes its incredible potential to be an unwatchably precious shit-show, the worst kind of hipster twee self-parody. Yet Moretz brings to the role the same almost spooky precociousness Jodie Foster brought to her performances as a child actress. Moretz is, if anything, far more mature and adult in her handling of emotions than her older brother, but thankfully the movie doesn’t push her precociousness too fair.

Here is a secret I am revealing for the first time: I coined the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl and canonized its primary characters and dynamic because I was once an overly emotional mopey straight white boy who felt his life was just a meet-cute with an excessively verbal waif away from eternal happiness. 

Like Tom, I totally had a huge crush on Zooey Deschanel (to be fair, everyone does)! Like him, I totally love the Smiths! And like him, I conceivably could sing The Pixies at karaoke. Hell, I related to the movie emotionally more than I care to admit, not because it’s terribly incisive about the male psyche, but rather because I used to be a sappy, overly entitled dude like Tom, and it never stopped breaking my heart that the real world looked very little like my romantic fantasies. It took me too long to figure out that the problem lie with me, and my expectations, not the outside world. 

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is primarily an archetype. But the reason it caught on is because it’s much bigger than that, ultimately. It is a world onto itself stitched together from Belle & Sebastian singles and Woody Allen movies from the 1970s and bicycling in the rain and Audrey Hepburn’s impossible beauty and Wes Anderson and heartbreak and Nick Drake and arthouse first dates. 

Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a language, a cinematic vocabulary that (500) Days of Summer speaks fluently, even as it seeks to undermine the phony and toxic dynamic at its core. So while the film may indeed subvert the idea that a female romantic lead must, and should, end up with the sappy dude pining for her, it’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie all the same. The archetype is most often a self-congratulatory male fantasy but there can be a masochistic element to it as well and (500) Days of Summer uses its dream girl to punish its lead for being such an entitled creep, but it can’t help but feel for him all the same. Neither could I. I am only human, after all, and who could possibly resist Zooey Deschanel in peak MPDG mode? 

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