‘(500) Days of Summer’ and 10 Years of Reflection

Let’s travel back in time to 2009, shall we? Ten years ago, over nine million people were tuning in to How I Met Your Mother each week, while All About Steve trailers inexplicably ran before the feature on all your favorite DVDs. Big screen rom-coms weren’t exactly thriving. Then, on January 17th, the non-linear romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer made its Sundance debut.

The movie went on to make $60 million at the box office, release a soundtrack that hit the Billboard charts, land director Marc Webb a Spider-man franchise, and spark a thousand conversations about the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope. It was also, full disclosure, one of my favorite films of 2009. But does it hold up?

With a decade of retrospect, the film is certainly still an achievement in form. Warm, dynamic cinematography and a bag of visual tricks and homages communicate the joy of new love and the black hole of heartbreak with a depth that’s rare for a genre that’s traditionally plot-driven. The emotions of the movie are somehow made more real by its least realistic moments, as when Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dances to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” complete with a marching band and an animated bird, after his first night spent with Summer (Zooey Deschanel).

A scene near the end of the film exemplifies its technical mastery. The sequence uses a split screen to show the ways in which Tom’s expectations of Summer’s post-break-up party fail to line up with reality. When Regina Spektor’s “Hero” crescendos, the camera first focusing on Tom’s face and then slowly wiping away the “expectations” half of the frame as it pans around to reveal what he’s seeing–Summer showing off her engagement ring — the plaintive song and Tom’s thwarted yearning are made painfully real to us. In short, Webb and cinematographer Eric Steelberg know how to strike you in the heart better than most.

For a few years after its release, (500) Days of Summer was synonymous with the term “indie,” the colloquial version of the word that seems to be exchangeable with “overly quirky” and “precious” and “try-hard.” It’s not the movie’s offbeat flourishes nor its puzzle-box form, however, which keep it from perfection. No, (500) Days of Summer’s problem is Tom, or rather the script’s stubborn inability to move fully beyond his perspective and see Summer as a real person.

This is in many ways the lesson of the movie, but since writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber bury it in the third act and usurp it with a jokey final scene that undoes the character’s progress, it’s not a lesson that sticks all these years later. “Just ’cause some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap that you do, that doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate,” Tom’s sister (a young Chloë Moretz in her first scene-stealing role) says in one scene, basically stating the film’s hidden thesis.

Tom has what Summer and many viewers see as an outdated idea of love and masculinity, one that drives him to punch other men for chivalry’s sake and beg exclusivity and love from his lover despite her clear aversion to it. This perspective is reinforced by all other characters besides Summer. Whenever Tom obsesses about his relationship, his friends and sister accuse him of “sounding gay” or “being a pussy,” whereas when Summer says she’s not interested in romance, Tom’s friend first asks her if she’s a lesbian and later says “She’s a dude!”

Conversely, the narrator explains that Tom gets his irritatingly romantic streak from “sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate,” while later he criticizes the greeting card industry, “the movies, and the pop songs” for putting false notions about love in men’s heads. It’s like Tom is on a hamster wheel, stuck replaying the thankless role of “romantic hero” despite his and the writer’s understanding that it’s too simple for the real world. Tom’s two contradictory perspectives on love are never quite reconciled, but the movie reverts back to his lovestruck perspective in the end, insisting in its final scene that he was right about soulmates while Summer, in all her fluidity and unwillingness to be pinned down, was wrong.

The problem is this: despite how much Tom and even the film’s writers think they appreciate Summer for her uniqueness, they’ve still trapped her within the man’s stifling romantic perspective. This is a shame because Summer herself is such a great and rare character: a woman who doesn’t care about social norms, who has intimacy problems but doesn’t need fixing, who loves everything around her while proclaiming her love for nothing. She’s free and relatable in a way that few romantic comedy leads are, except when her freeness is repeatedly coded by everyone else as withholding and cold.

The film starts with a note saying that the movie characters aren’t based on anyone, with the postscript: “Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.” Throughout the movie, people call Summer a bitch, an “uppity better-than-everyone superskank,” a whore, and an “evil, emotionless, miserable human being or… a robot.” She’s repeatedly blamed as a sort of emotional tease despite her frankness about her intentions from the outset. Only Tom’s date points out that Summer is not to blame, yet even in their final meeting, Tom is frustrated with Summer for dancing with him at a coworker’s wedding, saying accusatorily, “You just do what you want, don’t you?”

Too much of the movie lets us believe that Summer is the villain of this story when it’s really Tom — muttering about his hatred for women with tattoos and little dogs — with whom we should have a problem. I used to think this was cleverness and subtlety on the filmmakers’ part, coded messages buried in the movie that let you know Summer is the real hero, but with 10 years of distance, this constant obscuring of her character looks more like a missed opportunity to make a good movie great.

If the filmmakers truly wanted Summer as their hero, they wouldn’t have her tirelessly support Tom’s architecture dream, smile sweetly at the men who objectify her on the bus and at her work, and acquiesce to his damaging hopeless romanticism by the film’s end. Summer’s personality feels vibrant and authentic, a breath of fresh air within a genre which historically has adhered closely to prescribed gender roles, but despite her spot in the title, she is not given enough honest focus to be any kind of hero.

Ten years later, (500) Days of Summer is quick, funny, romantic, and heartbreaking. The film is memorable scene after scene, from the couple’s Ikea shopping trip to their ill-fated date to see The Graduate. Its emotions soar higher and dip lower than most romance films in recent memory, following Tom and Summer through a relationship that’s both realistically messy and lovingly impressionistic.

But (500) Days Of Summer also makes us, like Tom, look at Summer without ever really seeing her for far too long. I don’t know who Jenny Beckman is, but if she’s anything like the Summer we can read between the lines, I’d love to meet her. Hell, I’d love to finally meet Summer, too.

Valerie Ettenhofer: @aandeandval Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.