Words by Alex Hanson.
Boy meets girl. They both love The Smiths. You know where this is going–it’s where Hollywood takes you every time you watch a romantic comedy: two characters inevitably fall in love, leaving a string of adorably awkward moments and brief, but dramatic, disputes behind them only to realize they’ve found “the one.” The movie will end with a round of tearful, joyous “I love you’s” and a sugary pop song bouncing over the credits.
At the start of (500) Days of Summer, an omniscient third-party narrator promises not to give you that clichéd rom-com plot, telling you outright, “This is a story of boy meets girl. You should know up front, this is not a love story.” And yet, the chemistry between boy (Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and girl (Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel) is so sweet and endearing that you can’t help but hope that the narrator was wrong, or that there must be some loophole that will later have the narrator confessing, “just kidding, it was a love story the whole time! I really had you guessing, though, didn’t I?” (500) Days of Summer delivers a refreshing dose of reality to the romantic comedy genre.
Tom, a hopeless romantic who works at a greeting card company, falls for Summer, an independent, new-to-Los Angeles woman who believes true love isn’t real, the day she arrives as an office assistant at his company. This is day one of Summer. Tom spends 500 consecutive days obsessing over her, shown in non-chronological moments (including flashbacks)—allowing the audience to piece together a story arc of Tom falling for Summer, their casual dating, his heart breaking when she leaves him, his desperately trying to win her back, and finally getting over her.
Before Summer and Tom begin to hook up, she tells him that she does not want anything “..serious” and that she doesn’t believe in love. Tom, confident that she is The One, hesitantly agrees, even though he truly wants a secure, defined relationship with her. Because he pretends to compromise, Tom is doomed, no matter how much they both love The Smiths. Heartbreak is inevitable when one person wants an unrealistic amount of security in a new relationship and the other wants to remain unrealistically platonic in spite of the relationship blossoming.
Even though Tom is the protagonist, and Summer’s detachment leaves him hopelessly devastated throughout the film, Summer isn’t the antagonist. Upon a first viewing, it is easy to see Summer as some kind of manipulative villain toying with Tom’s dedication to her, but a closer look reveals that Summer is on her own emotional journey and does what she can to be sensitive to Tom. She has her bases covered when she tells him her preferences up front. It’s he who sets himself up for defeat by wishing she could change for him.
In one scene that takes place during the beginning of his affections, he narrates the parts of Summer’s body and personality that he loves, the shots visualizing these qualities as he speaks. Later in the film, when Summer has proven that she doesn’t want to be more than friends, he describes the same parts of her with disdain, his parallel narration playing over the same beautiful images from the earlier scene. Tom’s own perspective on Summer shapes his character arc, not Summer herself.
(500) Days of Summer isn’t about two people falling in love. It also isn’t about one person breaking another person’s heart. It’s about two gears that don’t quite fit together but try anyway. One gear spins too fast, the other too slow, and the machine breaks down. We don’t get a sugary pop song at the end of the film, but we do get a pleasant ending for both characters and an upbeat alternative song (Mumm-ra’s “She’s Got You High“) over the credits—which is just as sweet, if not sweeter.