[Written by Robert Salusbury]
The first time I saw 500 Days of Summer, I was rooting for Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) all the way. How could this doe-eyed, innocent guy be so misled by Summer (Zooey Deschanel)? Who could blame him for being such a hopeless romantic and believing that she was “the one”? Haven’t we all been in Tom’s shoes at some point?
A few weeks later, I was talking to a friend about the film and confided in them about these sympathies for Tom. They were shocked by this, pleading with me to watch the film again. So I returned to 500 Days of Summer with a mixture of scepticism and curiosity for a second viewing. It soon became clear what I had so badly misunderstood on my previous watch.
In falling for Tom’s cute innocence (I mean, how can you resist a face like that?!), I’d failed to see the bigger picture. This dissection of a relationship was in fact a scathing exposé of Tom’s wild fantasies about love and his constant bulldozing over Summer.
Throughout the film Tom builds up a fantasy image around Summer that warps his view of their entire relationship and completely offsets his expectations. From the very beginning Tom and Summer have completely different mindsets; Summer tells Tom early on that “I’m not really looking for anything serious” but these words clearly make little impact on him and he sets about trying to craft the perfect relationship between them.
So really, while some would consider 500 Days of Summer to be a rom-com, it is actually far from it. As the narrator (Richard McGonagle) explicitly tells us in the film’s opening, “this is not a love story.” Sure, director Marc Webb does borrow generously from the wide range of cliches that the genre is known for, including a dreamy indie soundtrack and plenty of hazily-shot scenes between Tom and Summer. But this is all deliberately done in order to dissect these tropes and expose them as the mere fantasies they actually are.
One example of this is the “I love” sequence, where Tom talks about how he loves Summer’s “smile, her hair, the sound of her laugh” as we see hazy close-ups of her body. Later in the film, we see the same sequence of images, but this time it’s post-break-up Tom talking: “I hate her crooked teeth, I hate her 1960’s hair, I hate the way she sounds when she laughs.” Here we get to the main problem with Tom; he was never in love with Summer, but the idea of Summer, the perfect fantasy version of her that falls to pieces as soon as they break up. By having Tom wistfully monologue about his infatuation with Summer, like so many protagonists do in so many romantic films, Tom’s behaviour begins to feel like a deliberate performance, like he is acting out what he believes the perfect relationship, and the perfect lover, should look like.
500 Days of Summer also sets itself apart from a whole plethora of break-up movies with its non-linear storyline that flits about between different moments in their relationship. Aside from being a fun, unconventional way to shake up the classic boy meets girl story, it also means that we see the relationship the way Tom perceives it. By cherry picking small, often insignificant moments and blowing them up to seem like major milestones in their relationship, we realize how much Tom misunderstood their time spent together.
A trip to IKEA, where they prance around the showrooms and parody scenes of domestic bliss, is breezily described by Summer as “fun,” and to her it is just that: fun. But for Tom, this memory is blown up and enlarged into an indicator of their bond and natural shared quirkiness. Set to the sound of Dove’s upbeat track “There Goes The Fear,” it becomes an important memory for Tom and a strong memento of their relationship. But what if it was just a trip to IKEA?
By basing the film around these moments in their relationship, flicking back and forth between the good and the bad times, we see how easily Tom idealises their relationship and blows everything out of proportion in his pursuit of the perfect romance. The notorious scene in the elevator early in the film (which has been dismissed by many as a cringey indie romance cliche) is again a perfect example of how Tom is already building up a fantasy image of Summer that he becomes hooked on. This minor moment, Summer complimenting his taste in The Smiths, is like a bombshell in Tom’s eyes. He stares after her, stunned, and mutters “holy shit,” and by selecting this as a snapshot from their developing relationship, the film magnifies this pretty innocuous moment until it is a seismic event signalling an eruption of blossoming love and passion.
Does this make 500 Days of Summer the perfect anti rom-com then? It’s something the film clearly aspires to be with its damning statements on cultural depictions of romance; when Tom dramatically quits his dead-end job at the card company, he says “it’s these cards, and the movies, and the pop songs, they’re to blame for all the lies.” But aside from this more explicit cultural critique, 500 Days is so effective in its depiction of a failing relationship because it shows us exactly where the flaws lie.
By hijacking rom-com cliches and using a narrative that bounces around between moments in their relationship, we see how Tom consistently overreacts about everything and continues to build on his fantasy image of Summer, crafting a false narrative in his own head that he finally breaks free from in the film’s finale. Joseph Gordon-Levitt once corrected someone on Twitter who was sympathising with his character, telling them “He’s projecting. He’s not listening. He’s selfish.” It’s something we’ve all done, but maybe it takes a film like 500 Days to make us actually realise these mistakes.