Written By: Daniel Kinsley
When (500) Days of Summer (2009) was released, it was both a critical darling, as well as a sleeper box office hit, a small film success in the midst of blockbuster season. As a younger man, this writer was enamored by the film, finding plenty to love in its unique voice. In the eight years since, this writer has gone through more than a few life changes, and so has my relationship to the film. Writer-director Marc Webb has described it as more of a coming-of-age story than a romantic-comedy, and in some ways, this feels true to the material, despite the fact that the film gleefully subverts many rom-com tropes.
It is the story of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a boy, as the narrator informs us who grew up believing he would never truly be happy until he met “The One.” The girl, Summer Finn, does not share this belief. The central conceit of their story is a kaleidoscopic time structure, which allows the film to be told in a nonlinear fashion. Since the events are told from Tom’s perspective, this concept allows things to be very elastic; it feels less like a traditional three-act story than a man playing back a series of memories as they filter back to him. Similarly, it feels true to the way we search for answers after a breakup, both recalling the good times and looking for the first signs that things were falling apart. It is fresh, and funny, and for many viewers, painfully familiar.
Tom is a greeting card writer who should have been an architect. Neither Tom nor the film explicitly gives a reason for the transition, but it is easy to imagine him falling into the former after college and eventually settling into it. But as the film goes on, it feels more pointed; Tom demonstrates his lack of willingness to put himself out there throughout the film, and it seems more like a sort of arrested development. Aesthetically, he looks like a hipper millennial Woody Allen type, replete with vests and khakis and too-large headphones. Tom has an affection for pop music, and very specific ideas about true love, and destiny, much of which is defined by pop culture.* Without a performer as sensitive and charismatic as JGL, the role would fall flat, as Tom is drawn to the sort of mawkish gestures that could feel twee in lesser hands.
When Summer is hired as an assistant to Tom’s boss, he finds himself drawn to her almost immediately. There is a palpable sense of frustration as he dances around getting up the courage to speak to her, living through imaginary slights based on the smallest interactions, always finding a reason to back off. It is not until an office-wide night out when his friend McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend) lets slip that Tom likes her that the possibility even seems real. Most importantly, though, is the moment he begins to fall for her (or rather, the idea of her). During a brief elevator ride, she notes that he is listening to The Smiths, and reveals that she too is a fan of Morrissey and the gang, singing along “To die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die.” He seems dumbstruck by the idea that a doe-eyed beauty might enjoy the same kind of music as he does. It is an important point, as he almost immediately forfeits the idea of really seeing her; instead, an idea begins to take shape about who she is based on what he wants from a woman.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, and he described the trope as “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”. In many ways, this is what Summer represents to Tom. Though it is not who Summer actually is,** there is almost no hint at a deeper sense of her, because Tom is never privy to it. He is sensitive, and naive, and believes wholly in true love, whereas Summer reveals early on that she does not.*** This is a significant point of division, as it flies in the face of everything Tom believes, yet he allows himself to be swept up in her orbit. Even after she explicitly tells him that she is not looking for anything serious, he plays it cool, and agrees that he is comfortable with casual, despite the look on his face that says he knows himself better.
In the beginning, the film gets so much right about the sense of pure fun in a new relationship. There is a real charm watching their chemistry develop as they improv their way through playing house in IKEA, or the absolute delight of Tom exuberantly dancing through the streets the morning after sleeping with Summer for the first time, to the tune of Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True”.**** On the surface, everything continues to go well until Tom starts asking more specific questions, looking for a sense of security that Summer seems unwilling to provide. It is a real heartache to watch them dance around one another; Tom is holding on to her so tightly that he is unable to relax long enough to enjoy what he already has, while Summer talks around the idea of having to provide any answers as long as both parties remain happy.
It may feel uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has dated in the modern era, where the ambiguity of “what it all means” can be maddening, and rife with rules that neither party understands. When Tom asks that she provide him with enough consistency for him to feel secure, it is not an unreasonable request, but one he knows full well she can not (or will not) fulfill. Despite the fact that Summer seems to operate without considering how her actions will affect Tom, she is never dishonest with him, and more importantly, he continues to allow it to happen because of what he gets out of the relationship. Beneath his beliefs about true love is a fear that he will end up alone. While compromise is a large part of what makes a relationship work, Tom seems unable to tell the difference between the functional and the self-immolating.
As a younger man, this writer certainly felt some kinship with Tom, and even now, it remains easy to see what feels so recognizable about him. Driven by a belief that his One True Love is out there, Tom latches on to a unique and beautiful woman, and projects all of his ideas about romance (the same ideas pilfered from songs and films like this one) onto her. Tom is simply not experienced enough to understand that his beliefs about the way things should be do not dictate reality. He has not really found the sort of love he dreams about, but when was the last time anyone listened to their gut while in the throes of something new, exciting, and filled with potential?
Ultimately, the problem is that Summer is less of a person than she is a pop song come to life. This is intentional, as Summer is seen only from Tom’s perspective, and because he lacks the ability to see her complexity, there largely is not any. She becomes more of a prize than a person, something to be won and possessed rather than someone to be complemented by. For instance, when she invites him back to her apartment and begins sharing stories of her life, Summer’s actual words are drowned out in favor of the narrator pointing out how Tom feels so special because these are stories that need to be earned, yet there is never any real sense that he is listening, much less utilizing the information in any meaningful way.
Late in the film, Tom’s precocious younger sister***** implores him to try not to remember only the good memories. He recalls how just hours before the break-up, the two of them go see The Graduate (1975) and the camera lingers on the way Summer cries at the final shot of the film (perhaps a little too much to be only about the movie). Though the film leaves it open-ended as to why she is so upset, it is all there for the discerning viewer. For those who haven’t seen the latter film, there is a shared DNA with this one in the way the female lead is not given much agency, viewed only through the male perspective, and treated much like an object to be won (and kept) rather than an equal partner. This writer would venture that the seeing the film was able to turn a crack into a fissure, as it crystallizes for Summer the reasons why Tom is not the right man for her.
Some time after the breakup, Tom still harbors a belief that he can win her back. This idea is given a opportunity when Tom and Summer find their paths crossing en route to a wedding for a former co-worker. For the span of an evening, things seem relaxed enough to reignite Tom’s hope for reconciliation. They joke, and they laugh, and they dance, and on the way home, she falls asleep on his shoulder. It is their entire relationship in a microcosm; Summer acting on her impulses in the moment, and Tom riding the wave, trying not to take his eyes off the moment lest it all come apart. Before they part, Summer invites him to an upcoming party at her building. Through a pretty brilliant use of split screen, the film illustrates Tom’s expectations of what will occur (on the left) versus the reality of what is happening (on the right). It is heartbreaking to watch his fantasy crumble, the final blow coalescing the two screens into one when he witnesses Summer showing off an engagement ring to a friend.
Gravity dictates that everything which goes up must come down, and in the sense that life is a series of ups and downs, the opposite is true, too. While Tom descends to some low points (only leaving his apartment for whiskey and twinkies) eventually the life begins to return to his eyes. He is able to see through some of his own fallacies about love and destiny, and finally quits the greeting card business. It is an important moment as he seemingly begins to acquaint himself with the idea that he is contributing to the same irresponsibility that landed him a broken heart. Trading in his high school hipster look for a dark suit and tie, he returns (literally) to the drawing board to pursue architecture. While he is still reeling from his heartache, the introspection that leads to this improvement seems to invigorate him in a way that feels new.
When Tom sees Summer for the last time (Day 488) he remains hurt and confused by the way things shook out. Despite the ways he contributed to his own fate, it is difficult not to wince when she tells him, “It just happened. One day I just woke up and I knew…what I was never sure of with you.” It is clear in the brief silence that follows that Tom wants to run far away, but he does not. Instead, he tells her that she was right: all that stuff about destiny and true love was bullshit, and ironically enough, it is Summer who now affirms these beliefs for him. When she recounts the story of meeting her husband, she explains how she believes it was meant to be, that Tom was right all along. It is arguably the most mature insight in the whole film, as Summer is able to gently point out that Tom is not wrong for believing in true love, instead, “It just wasn’t me that you were right about.” Just before they part, when he wishes her well, it feels true and sincere, and a watermark of Tom’s growth.
On day 500, Tom goes on a job interview at an architecture firm. In the waiting area, he strikes up a repartee with a woman (Minka Kelly) who is up for the same position. There is flirty banter, and though Tom seems intrigued, the narrator assures us that he has finally learned there is no such thing as fate, that nothing is meant to be. When he wheels and turns back to the woman to ask her out, she reveals that her name is Autumn. While earlier scenes seem to endorse Tom’s self-improvement as the way out of the darkness of his broken heart, this final scene undercuts the idea in favor of replacing Summer with another woman, essentially filling the same function of the “prize.” The fact that her name is Autumn only calls more attention to this, in an obnoxious way. There is a poetry to the idea of Tom moving on (after all, one door closes, another opens) but the moment feels a little too cute, and has never rang true to this viewer. Instead, it feels like a step backward from the idea that Tom alone is responsible for his own happiness.
Much like High Fidelity (2000) the film endures because of the way its deeper meaning is able to shift and grow alongside its viewers. For the young, it is either a cautionary tale or a reflection (in some cases, it is surely both) while it becomes clearer with age just where Tom went wrong. One of its greatest strengths is in the elasticity of its themes, and despite a few missteps, the film can safely stand beside other giants of the genre. Just do not mistake it for a love story.
* Look no further than the narrator explaining how Tom completely misread The Graduate (1975) as an entry point.
** A point which the film mostly does not support, except in several wrong-headed scenes like the flashback to Summer’s employment at the ice-cream shop, and how her presence inexplicably made business spike.
*** In fairness, this is a statement that is at least on par with many of Tom’s more eye-rolling beliefs.
**** For this writer, the moment when Tom looks at his reflection and sees Han Solo staring back at him will ALWAYS elicit a huge grin.
***** This is a trope this writer believes should be put out to pasture forever, with prejudice.