Gain a new perspective as we look back at iconic films, books and TV shows in our Rewind & Review series, where we appreciate the roles they have played in their time and reimagine iconic scenes in today's narrative.
“I think you’re just remembering the good stuff. Next time you look back, I, uh, really think you should look again.” — Rachel Hansen, 500 Days Of Summer
500 Days Of Summer, which was released in 2009, may just be one of the most influential movies about romance, even if it tells the story of a flawed one. In fact, it is exactly why it became so beloved — it shattered our long-held illusions of what love should look like as inspired by the countless romantic comedies we've watched in the 2000s. The story is told in a non-linear way, so we get an idea right off the bat that it's not going to end well. Even the narrator warns us that what we're watching is not a love story, although it is a story about love. This refreshing concept full of candour garnered the movie numerous awards including Best Original Screenplay at the 14th Satellite Awards.
Its sphere of influence also extended beyond the film industry and into popular culture. Summer's (played by Zooey Deschanel) vintage-inspired style was the subject of many fashion articles at the time, ranging from how you can dress like her to interviews with the costume designer. The film also contributed to hipster culture going mainstream; raise your hand if you've never heard of The Smiths until that elevator scene.
But today, more than a decade later after its release and hype, how does 500 Days hold up? Moreover, why was it "misunderstood" back then and why did we all think that Summer was at fault?
The Missing Piece: 500 Days Of Summer is a coming-of-age tale
For us, the key is in critiquing it not as a rom-com but as a coming-of-age tale. Why? Although Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a grown man, he still held onto his beliefs about love formed as an impressionable young boy with a healthy diet of rom-coms. Throughout the film, he goes on a journey where his beliefs are altered and shaped into maturity.
In any coming-of-age film, there is always a scene where the protagonist gets a clear view of their shortcomings or immaturity — think Cady in Mean Girls (2004), Nadine in Edge of Seventeen (2016), and Andy in Devil Wears Prada (2006) — but that scene is missing in 500 Days. You got the closure talk, the heartbreak montage but nothing that underlines Tom’s shortcomings. Could this be why Summer was painted as the movie's villainess?
To fill in the gap, we worked with Singaporean illustrator Josephine Tan to reimagine the movie's closing and most iconic bench scene — and turned it into the key moment where Tom owns up to his shortcomings.
In this reimagined version of his last scene with Summer — where he was originally still sulking in self-pity. (“You know what sucks? Realising that everything you believe in is complete and utter bullshit. It sucks.”) and Summer didn't tell him where it went wrong and instead talked in vague, quotable quotes (“I just kept thinking… ’Tom was right.’ It just wasn't me you were right about.”) — we see Tom finally getting the coming-of-age comeuppance. But why exactly did we see the need to do so?
A one-sided view of love
The first notable line in the movie was: “This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.” And yet, the cinematography and the way the story was laid out want you to believe otherwise. Because ultimately, the intent was to be subversive — this is the movie’s strength and also the root of its shortcoming. It spends so much time fooling us or masking its true intentions that it ultimately undermined its message.
All visual elements point to it being a love story, but it's not; it's a coming-of-age film. How? First, it centres on only one perspective, Tom’s, which is very different from how romantic stories are portrayed which usually takes into consideration the two protagonists’ point of view. Why? Because this is the journey of Tom, not the journey of Tom and Summer.
Second, for all the movie’s talk about finding love, Tom never, in the whole duration of the film, finds it. But instead, he gains a deeper understanding of it. It is not a story about finding love, it is a story about growing up and accepting that the things you thought you knew can sometimes be false, even problematic. Summer, like her namesake season, is just a phase and not a permanent fixture in Tom’s life. And because of that, in my opinion, Summer is a manic pixie dream girl.
A lot of modern critique about the film posits that Summer isn't one, but the common reasoning is because she did not end up with Tom or that she had her own goals. But in the context of the film as it is, one that is told in a biased one-person perspective, the ultimate role of Summer is to teach Tom a lesson. She's not so much a character, as she is a plot device. Problematic? That's up to your judgement.
The Questionable: Why we thought Summer was the “B-word”
At the peak of its popularity, 500 Days Of Summer was widely misunderstood. Even the cast expressed their surprise at the audience's interpretation of it and the hate Summer got. In an interview with Larry King, Joseph Gordon-Levitt who played Tom even said that he thought the failed romance is his character's fault because of his refusal to listen to Summer. But can the audience really be blamed when Summer, right from the very start, was set up to be the despicable heartbreaker?
The film even opens with a hate note: “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.” It opens in such a sexist tone as if the film meant to set up a sort of hatred for women who reject men, prompting some to label it as a revenge film.
In the same respect, the film also relied heavily on heteronormative norms. (“There's only two kinds of people in the world. There's women and there's men. Summer Finn was a woman.”). At one point, Summer says that she doesn’t believe in marriage and she just wants to have fun and be independent. To this, her co-worker responded, “Holy shit, she’s a dude”, as though it were meant to elevate the message that a woman who wants independence is strange and the concept is something that only men want.
And all throughout the movie, Summer was built up to be this enigmatic figure who has all the solutions to make Tom’s life happier. And by not wanting to commit to him, she’s essentially painted as depriving Tom of his happiness. When examined, all of Tom’s lines describing what he likes about Summer were based on infatuation, and the intention was to depict Tom as shallow (“I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love how she licks her lips before she talks. I love her heart-shaped birthmark on her neck. I love it when she sleeps.”).
But the execution reinforced this behaviour as romantic or passionate because of the way it was framed (close-ups of Summer’s body parts). Without proper context, as a visual medium, the framing always wins over the script.
Of course, one can argue that that was the point, that Tom puts her on a pedestal which becomes his undoing. This is also what may have led many not just in 2009 but until today to miss the message and see Summer as a heartbreaker who, in Tom’s words, is an “unemotional human being or a robot”.
The Good: A reality check on love
But it's not all that bad. The legacy of 500 Days Of Summer was its subversiveness. At the time of its release, the film was lauded for its deconstruction of the typical and often toxic rom-com narrative that painted creepy and abusive behaviours as romantic. This includes strange declarations of affection such as Noah's in The Notebook (2004) when he threatened suicide to get a date; Edward's climbing on Bella’s window to stare at her while she’s asleep in Twilight (2008), and Love Actually’s (2003) now-infamous cue card scene.
Rom-coms are also notorious for depicting finding "the one" as the ultimate goal of an individual (Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2001), or that the “right person” can change someone’s behaviour (Carrie’s belief that she can change Mr. Big on Sex & The City, 1998-2004), or that love is determined by fate (Serendipity, 2001).
Like us, protagonist Tom formed all these rom-com beliefs from romantic movies and encountered 'expectations versus reality' moments about real-life romance. As spectators, we get to go through the same journey he does while all our beliefs about the ideal romance become unravelled.
The movie even played into the rom-com clichés right down to its omniscient love story narrator, side-by-side “growing up” montage of Tom and Summer, and the dreamy filmography — only to pull the curtain on us at the end, driving home the message that rom-coms are a fantasy.
500 Days Of Summer also positioned Tom’s sister, Rachel (a teenage female; a demographic often depicted as shallow and ditzy), as the voice of reason throughout the movie. She delivers some of the movie’s best lines like: “Just cause' some girl likes the same bizarro crap like you do doesn't make her your soulmate”. Savage, but true.
By overthrowing all our romantic expectations, it changed our perspective on love and in this regard, 500 Days Of Summer was successful. So successful that after its release, the rom-com genre took on a more down-to-earth, cynical tone in the likes of Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Crazy Stupid Love (2011), No Strings Attached (2011), Friends With Benefits (2001), and Netflix’s Love (2016-2018).
500 Days of Summer must have been one of the most misunderstood movies in modern cinema. Not just because it was then an entirely new concept when it was released, but also because it has its own shortcomings by underrepresenting Summer’s situation and diving (dare we say, indulging) too much into Tom’s heartbreak. But we must recognise that this movie is still an important catalyst in giving the rom-com genre a new layer of nuance.
(Cover photos from: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Dune Entertainment. Artwork by: Josephine Tan)
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