Receiving the alleged romantic comedies “Garden State” and “(500) Days of Summer” in your mailbox at the same time produces a feeling I can’t say I endorse – some mixture of lighthearted nostalgia and bottomless despair. Actually watching them both on the same day is one of the most depressing things a man near the end of his 20s who is inept at relationships can do while drinking by himself.
But enough about you. Let’s talk about these ridiculous films. Both “Garden State” (2004) and “(500) Days of Summer” (2009) feature male protagonists who get blindsided by what is known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That’s the term, now commonplace, coined by the AV Club to describe the type of whimsical female character “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.”
In other words, if she’s hot, “quirky” and exists only as a means-to-an-end plot device, you’ve got yourself a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (hereafter, MPDG). The dudes in “Garden State” and “Summer” provide numerous lessons, mainly through negative example, in MPDG handling – how to ready yourself for her arrival, how to integrate her code-red levels of lovable eccentricity into your stuffy life, how to make sure she’s real and not just the imaginary Tyler Durden-esque manifestation of some grim psychological imbalance and so on.
Make no mistake, movies of this type are universally demeaning to women. Yet if you are the man in one of these movies, you are probably an asshole. Why’s that? Well, considering the female characters are drawn so one-dimensionally, it takes a real asshole to fall for one of them. But are you a “Garden State” asshole or a “(500) Days of Summer” asshole? And which wackadoo cardboard-cutout woman drags that inner asshole out into the penetrating light of day? Rental Rehab is here to help. Answer the following 13 questions and consult the accompanying answer key to determine how horrible a person you are (spoiler alert: very) and which specific circle of hell you belong in.
1. Your movie is the poor man’s…
A. “The Graduate”
B. “Amelie”/”Annie Hall”/”When Harry Met Sally”/”Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
2. Your story is structured in which of the following ways?
A. As filler between all these neat visual sequences you dreamed up. Like: A guy walks past automatic faucets in a public bathroom and they all turn on one by one; a guy puts on a shirt made from leftover wallpaper, then stands in front of that wallpaper; a man sits down to breakfast wearing a suit of armor; three people in rain ponchos scream into a ravine for some reason.
B. With askew chronology to disguise otherwise banal story as “clever.”
3. This film exists because…
A. A certain successful young actor – let’s call him “Zach Braff” – had an idea for a movie so trailblazing and original that fate demanded it be Braff-written, Braff-directed and Braff-starred-in. He might have also handled the catering.
B. A screenwriter got dumped and decided to write a movie as revenge against the awful bitch who broke his heart. No, really, it’s true.
4. The use of slow-motion photography in your film is…
A. Needless to say, excessive.
B. Mercifully absent.
5. Your character’s biographical information consists of…
A. Stagnating career as actor; Los Angeles apartment whose pristine whiteness reflects your soul’s emptiness or whatever; portentous trip home to reconcile Traumatic Childhood with Recent Family Tragedy during which who knows what will happen.
B. Stagnating career as architect; anachronistic, beyond-cushy Los Angeles job as a greeting-card writer in an office environment that could not feasibly have existed later than the mid-1960s; girlfriend-sized hole in life.
6. Your “issues” include…
A. Overmedication; thousand-yard staring; dead mother; dickhead father; existential stasis uniquely susceptible to life-changing MPDG intervention; inert personality that makes later attractiveness to pretty female character grossly implausible; Zach Braffness (literal).
B. Self-destructive post-MPDG-breakup behavior that removed of endearingly romantic-comedic context suggests minor mental illness; perversely idealized notions of love thanks to pop-culture over-internalization; extreme neediness; inaccurate perception of own specialness; doormat tendencies uniquely susceptible to life-ruining MPDG intervention; Zach Braffness (figurative).
7. The supporting characters in your life consist of…
A. A bunch of fuckups from your high school compared to whom you are a model of proper adjustment to adulthood.
B. Unrealistically bullshit-tolerant male friends/coworkers; freakishly precocious maybe-12-year-old sister whose advanced understanding of relationships gets less adorable the more one thinks about how she might have acquired it.
8. The nauseating manner in which you meet your MPDG involves the music of…
A. The Shins
B. The Smiths
9. This makes her the perfect woman because…
A. Holy shit! She likes a pleasant-sounding band I’ve never heard of before! Who knows what sort of kooky mystical world she’s about to introduce me to.
B. Holy shit! She happens to like my favorite band of all time! What are the odds a stylish, attractive, city-dwelling woman my age manages to discover and enjoy the very same pretty-much-mainstream, subculturally agreed-upon rock group I happen to love? I wonder if she’s also into the Pixies.
10. Your MPDG is “quirky” in which of the following ways?
A. Is creepily attached to rodent pets; has crates full of vinyl records (whoa!); wears a helmet due to world’s cutest case of epilepsy; lives with eccentric mom and adopted black brother (no kidding, like totally black!); pathological liar; manages considerable feat of rendering Natalie Portman unlikable via famously stupid “I just did something that’s never been done before” scene; safe to assume there’s a hamburger phone somewhere.
B. Predictably well-curated “vintage” fashion sense; collects interesting shit; gives you a legitimate run for your money in the narcissism department; has acquired unspecified baggage thanks to being named after a season; is alluringly “free-spirited” only as far as she doesn’t want to be your girlfriend; is, for fuck’s sake, Zooey Deschanel.
11. Your MPDG acknowledges her “quirkiness” how?
A. Actually saying: “I don’t know, I’m weird, man.”
B. Chronic indifference toward you, your feelings.
12. Musical montages begin whenever you…
A. Go anywhere in a vehicle; gaze significantly at her eyes; realize that if Cameron Crowe were making this movie, he’d probably put a cool song right about here.
B. Finally have sex with your MPDG, and the experience somehow comes within a thousand miles of your demented expectations.
13. The most ridiculous thing your character says is…
A. So much to contend with here, but let’s go with: “Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.” (Huh?)
B. “You’re not the only person with a say in this, and I say we’re a couple!” (Also, your skin would make a great lampshade.)
If you selected (A/B), your character is…
A. Zach Braff in “Garden State” as Andrew Largeman, who, if the legit acting career doesn’t go anywhere, could at least do porn without having to change his name.
B. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “(500) Days of Summer” as Tom Hansen, who embodies a male archetype no less repugnant than the MPDG, which we’ll call the Docile Oblivious Underdog Crybaby Hipster Everyman (hereafter, DOUCHE).
Your MPDG is…
B. Well, she was Summer.
You are/were better off [blank] her.
Your movie sets gender relations back how many decades?
A. One at the most. Is it sexist to suggest a movie isn’t intelligent enough to be sexist?
B. Two or three, and confusingly so. Clearly the audience is intended to dislike your MPDG, who is cruel, leads you on, toys with your heart, etc., while unfairly deprived of any interior life or normalizing factors to mitigate her behavior. The less persuasive opposing argument is that your movie is unconventionally anti-sexist because it presents a strong, if opaque, female character who conducts the relationship on her terms and simultaneously illustrates the real-life pitfalls of being a DOUCHE who falls for the MPDG type. Yet considering the film’s back-story (see question No. 3), it’s safe to say any meaningful commentary is achieved unintentionally.
All of which makes your “happy ending” truly very sad because…
A. Deciding you’re in love with a woman you met four days ago basically amounts to extending your cupped hands and asking for crazy-sauce to be heaped forth; the life you’re leaving behind is so unsatisfying that starting from scratch with a basket-case borderline personality in a miserable town actually seems like an appealing alternative.
B. It’s “Eternal Sunshine” minus self-awareness; you’ve learned nothing; finding a new woman named, of all idiotic things, Autumn, and rewinding the clock is, rather than the joyful new beginning as which it’s presented, simply the kickoff of another dead-end relationship you are clueless to recognize.
A better way of handling the whole situation would have been…
A. Getting on the plane, having a few nice memories to masturbate to.
B. Realizing she’s just not that into you, moving on with your life.
A. Exactly what you’re about to get: approximately 10 minutes of giddy euphoria before the stench of reality wafts in; an obligatory relationship with a woman whose nutty charisma won’t take long to wear thin; a life of rapidly diminishing returns in goddamn New Jersey.
B. An equally miserable 500 days of Autumn; a dick-punching of unimaginable severity.
Rental Rehab guest review by Troy