(500) Days of Summer and its deconstruction of romantic comedies

Actors Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt sit next to each other on a bench in the movie "500 Days of Summer."
Dune Entertainment/Courtesy

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Ten years and a week after the movie first premiered in Park City, Utah, the boy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the girl, Zooey Deschanel, reunited for a nostalgic viewing party at Entertainment Weekly to reminisce about a film that faced its fair share of misinterpretation.

 

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It’s a story about boy meets girl. It’s a story about love. But make no mistake, the movie “(500) Days of Summer” is not a love story. On Jan. 17, 2009, Marc Webb’s indie deconstruction of romantic comedies debuted at Sundance Film Festival and would go on to become a surprisingly enjoyable sleeper hit of that year.

As Deschanel noted at the viewing party, “This is a movie with zero dramatic irony. Zero. It is 100 percent from Tom’s point of view.”

We follow the self-proclaimed “hero” of the story, and through those eyes, he unwittingly deconstructs the very idea of the romantic stories he was so enamored with.

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In one of the most powerful and defining scenes of the entire movie, Tom attends Summer’s party and is heartbroken to see her engaged and in love. The juxtaposition of his expectations versus reality, accompanied by a heartbreaking anthem, illustrates the lens with which the movie most deconstructs the concept of a romantic comedy. Though the film doesn’t visually compare expectations and reality throughout, it invites the viewer to consider what they would predict should happen in a love story, then turns that idea around in Tom’s life.

There are certain expectations that arise when a movie is about a boy meeting a girl: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl experience heartbreak. Boy and girl reunite.

But from the very beginning, it’s very evident that this isn’t what “(500) Days of Summer” is about.

Summer is honest about what she wants from the very beginning, proclaiming, “I don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend. I don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s anything.”

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At the karaoke scene early in the movie, romance is immediately introduced. Of course Tom and Summer are going to have some sweet and cute moments as they drunkenly sing and form a close friendship with one another. That’s how the love story starts.

It’s not that simple though, because in reality, their incompatibility is shown from the first sincere conversation they have with each other. Summer is honest about what she wants from the very beginning, proclaiming, “I don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend. I don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s anything.”

Despite this honesty, Tom never truly hears Summer’s desires, something many viewers themselves also fell into. As Deschanel remembers, “I’m just so surprised when women will be like, ‘I hated your character in that movie!’ I’m like, really? She said everything from the beginning!”

The scene isn’t a cute interaction between the two future lovers — it’s the weak brick placed at the foundation of their relationship. Tom doesn’t genuinely listen to what Summer wants.

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Tom continues to ignore what Summer is openly saying to him throughout their relationship. Eventually, they grow close enough to where Summer is able to be vulnerable with Tom. Following the tropes of romantic comedies, this scene where they are lying in bed and talking about Summer’s dreams should be the entry point into a more concrete idea of their future.

The reality of it is much sadder, as Tom fails to understand what she’s saying. As she begins to express deep and formerly hidden thoughts, the narrator drowns her out with statements of Tom’s own importance.

“If that voice is Tom’s voice, that means that while Summer is telling him about her dream, he is just thinking about how special he is,” Gordon-Levitt points out.

In this scene, another important misconception is broken down: the idea of Summer being a manic pixie dream girl, a character archetype of a woman introduced to a man with the sole purpose of making the man’s life better. This “girl” is written to be a perfect complement and inspiration to the male protagonist. While Summer can be mistaken for one of these stereotypes, this scene points out a flaw in that argument.

Summer has her own dreams.

But because Tom doesn’t hear them, neither do the viewers. Gordon-Levitt noted how intentionally dominant the narrator’s voice was in scenes like this one: “We all think that our perspective is authoritative, and Tom thinks that his perspective is authoritative.”

While Summer can be mistaken for one of these stereotypes, this scene points out a flaw in that argument… Summer has her own dreams.

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The characters in a rom-com define the film as much as the story itself does. The endearing and likable protagonists spark a sense of support from the viewer as they watch them succeed in their love lives. So when we’re introduced to Tom Hansen, our “love story” protagonist, we expect him to be chivalrous and romantic.

And he thinks he is, but the problem is that he isn’t. Tom finds himself stuck, believing that he’s playing the role of the “romantic hero” of his story even though that idea is too simple for the real world. This intrinsic misunderstanding that he has about love is constantly illustrated throughout the movie, without Tom even realizing it.

In a brief documentary-style scene, characters talk about their beliefs on what love is. When Tom’s friend Paul talks about his “dream girl,” he ultimately affirms that all those expectations don’t matter compared to the girl he’s actually with. She’s the best because she’s real.

But when it cuts to Tom, he’s speechless. He is unable to verbalize what he truly feels about love because for him, the idea of Summer was better than the reality of Summer.

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At this point in the film, Tom’s younger sister Rachel (Chloë Grace Moretz) tells him, “Just ’cause some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap that you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

In saying this, she subtly presents the entire thesis of Tom’s problem: He’s in love with the idea of being in love, not with Summer.

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All the subversions of tropes and bitter realities don’t lead to a sour ending for Tom’s story. The movie captivates the viewer because, after all the previous subversions, it’s expected that Tom be left heartbroken — a fitting polar opposite to the happiness that Summer has quickly found.

But the reality is better than that because he doesn’t end up miserable and dejected. It’s a tale of coming of age, and the ending isn’t really an ending — it’s a new beginning. There’s hopefulness in meeting Autumn. Just because Tom learned some hard lessons with Summer doesn’t mean that he can’t find love again or that he can’t be hopeful.

It’s a tale of coming of age, and the ending isn’t really an ending — it’s a new beginning.

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Both actors have related their understanding of why the film is so widely appreciated. The constant comparison between expectations and reality isn’t a problem unique to Tom Hansen. Looking back, Gordon-Levitt agrees: “It’s such a common thing, especially with love. You develop your ideal, your expectations, what you want, what you want the world to be.”

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Tom’s 500 days of liking, loving and losing Summer are an illustration of the bittersweet reality of what love is. Its homage to love stories that came before is a nod to the more important message of growing up. The concept of a love story is the primary obstacle that Tom continuously faces as he grows up, as he struggles to understand that reality doesn’t always meet his expectations. The film isn’t about a boy falling in love with a girl — it’s about a boy coming of age and realizing what love is truly about.

Ten years later, one can only hope that Tom and Autumn are living a better reality than the expectations that weighed on Summer.

Contact Emmanuel Ronquillo at [email protected].