So what if La La Land didn’t actually win Best Picture? I was only about 30 seconds in when it became one of my favorite movies ever (that song-and-dance tracking shot in a freeway traffic jam?! BRILLIANT!). It didn’t take much longer for it to remind me of one of my other favorite movies, (500) Days of Summer. Both are set in Los Angeles, though only the cool and beautiful parts. La La Land is a full-on musical, but (500) Days of Summer features a showstopper that is masterfully choreographed. Both are about young adulthood romances and how they shape lives, personally and professionally. (500) Days of Summer is skewed towards the male lead, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in terms of how his life trajectory shifts because of his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). La La Land is more balanced, as Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (actual Oscar-winner Emma Stone) change each other in profound ways.
These movies share enough cinematic DNA that they could have been separated at birth. One more similarity- they each have terrific endings. In the third act of La La Land I was really curious about how it would stick the landing, and it did in a very poignant way; its combination of heartbreak and uplift might best be captured by the saying, “Things happen for a reason.” And speaking of fate, I discuss the brilliant final scene of (500) Days of Summer on the Blew My Mind podcast.
Looking for a little more romance? Below is an excerpt from CinemAnalysis, a book about movie double-features in which Josh Jensen and I explore the similarities between (500) Days of Summer and another post-modern romantic comedy, Annie Hall.
(500) Days of Summer (2009) & Annie Hall (1977)
Having touched on childhood the last two chapters, it’s time to grow up. The next stage of life is young adulthood, which is where we find the main characters in the first entry in this double-feature. Its partner is about mid-life characters, but the movies share enough parallels for them to have been separated at birth.
Post-Modern Romantic Comedies
Annie Hall is one of the best romantic comedies ever made, in large part because Woody Allen subverted the form in many ways (including punting the Hollywood happy ending). Annie Hall combines disparate styles and elements, such as animation and breaking the 4th wall (a great scene in which protagonist Alvy calls out an annoying fellow moviegoer by pulling in philosopher Marshall McLuhan himself).
(500) Days of Summer is a direct descendant of Annie Hall. Among the many shared strands of cinematic, post-modern DNA are jumping time cuts (that take the audience back and forth and back again across the romance of Tom and Summer), a musical number bursting out in downtown Los Angeles (to Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” no less), a fleeting break of the 4th wall, and an inspired split-screen sequence comparing our hero Tom’s expectations with heart-breaking reality. The movie also makes the post-modern move of announcing that it is not a love story (or is it?). Finally, (500) Days of Summer took some stabs at retro fashion statements (like sweater vests) ala the trend-setting style of Annie Hall (she looked pretty cool in that vest and tie get-up).
As in Annie Hall, the boy in (500) Days of Summer doesn’t get the girl (or does he?). Most importantly, both Alvy and Tom are nudged along in their lives by their star-crossed relationships with Annie and Summer, respectively. As Alvy puts it, we have relationships, as crazy as they can be, because we “need the eggs.” And Tom needed Summer to get his proverbial ball bouncing in rhythm.
All The World’s a (Developmental) Stage
These two movies emphasize the importance of relationships, especially of the romantic kind, in personal development. Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about 8 life stages, each of which is partly defined by a conflict to be resolved in order for growth to occur (1980). Tom and Summer of (500) Days of Summer would be in stage 6, or Young Adulthood, which involves the conflict between intimacy/solidarity (finding meaningful relationships) and isolation. Tom yearns for attachment and feels strongly that Summer will provide him with that. Through most of the story Summer does not think that she wants that until she finds someone (other than Tom) who fills that previously undetected void. Erikson also proposed that successful resolution of the conflict at each stage results in the development of a virtue.1 The resulting virtue for stage 6, Young Adulthood? Love. Hmmm . . . maybe this movie is a love story after all.
Alvy of Annie Hall is a bit older and is in stage 7, or Middle Adulthood. For Erikson, the conflict at this stage is between generativity and self-absorption/stagnation; it’s about putting down roots with a family and creating stability and worth. The virtue to be attained at this stage is care2, and the risk is the mid-life crisis, which Alvy exemplifies with his insecurities (as opposed to, say, buying a sports car). Tom seems to be on his way through stage 6 when fate smiles on him in the final moments of (500) Days of Summer. Alvy’s direction is less clear, but he acknowledges how much better off he was for having known Annie, who inadvertently pushed him out of his various comfort zones along the way. But he may be working through Middle Adulthood for a while.
1,2 Erikson, E.H. (1980). Identity and the life cycle. New York: Norton.