500 Days of Summer

Tom and Summer laugh together in a cinema in 500 Days of Summer

“Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

Are you sick of romantic comedies? You know, boy meets girl, there’s some cute awkwardness, and then they live happily ever after? The “nice guy” with horrible romantic luck eventually meets the quirky, beautiful girl of his dreams? 500 Days of Summer may be the cure. It’s a smart comedy (I hesitate to call it truly romantic) about what happens when a character buys into that ideal, but the reality doesn’t match. In fact, the lead character, Tom, is so bought into the ideal romance that he completely ignores the woman he’s dating and the real romance right in front of him. Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this film is intelligent, insightful, and oozing with hipster style.

The plot follows Tom, a young man who has held onto the concept of “the one” since he grossly misread the ending of The Graduate at a young age (a detail which I found hilarious). When he meets a new girl at the office, Summer, who happens to like The Smiths (which Tom thinks is the coolest thing in the world), he decides that she’s “the one” and moves in to make her his. Problem is, Summer doesn’t want a serious relationship. Tom decides that Summer just doesn’t know she wants a serious relationship. He also decides that Summer just doesn’t know that she doesn’t like all the things that he likes. This is not a great basis for a relationship, but both Tom and Summer learn a lot.

Okay, here’s something that you wrote last week… ‘Roses are red, violets are blue… fuck you whore.’

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “nice guy,” I’ll fill you in. A nice guy is a guy who believes that women owe him a relationship because he’s such a nice guy. He often brags about how nice and respectful he is, especially to women, although he’s painfully unaware of all the ways he’s actually not all that nice and respectful. He becomes angry when women don’t want a relationship with him and concludes that women only go for assholes, but he keeps befriending women in the hopes of earning a relationship. The nice guy stereotype is something you don’t see a lot in film; in fact, film tropes are often why real-life nice guys exist. The brilliant thing about this film is how accurately Tom embodies every nice guy trait that so many women know all too well. At one point, after yelling at Summer until she’s intimidated into saying she’s alright with a relationship, he very chivalrously allows two other women to go in front of him in a hallway, so they really capture that cognitive dissonance and the toll it takes on Summer. Tom isn’t without his likeable traits, but he is, at least at the beginning of the film, a deeply flawed character.

Another common trope this film plays with is that of the manic pixie dream girl. An MPDG is a quirky, free-spirited woman who’s supposed to step unexpectedly into a man’s life and change it for the better. Modern films like Elizabethtown and Garden State give us such characters, but the trope goes way back to films like Annie Hall and Breakfast at Tiffany’s as well. There are some problems with that, most notably the notion that these women only exist for the betterment of men, but it’s also a tired trope. The interesting thing here is that Zooey Deschanel plays a similar character in almost every movie she’s in, so that’s what the audience, as well as main character Tom, were expecting from her. I even see Summer listed in numerous lists of MPDG movies; I disagree. Summer is more normal here than most female leads in romantic comedies. The whole point of the movie is that Tom kept expecting Summer to be his MPDG, and she just wanted a normal human relationship (starting with a friendship) based on mutual respect.

Summer talks to Tom, who is wearing headphones, in 500 Days of Summer
The four words every hipster guy longs to hear a woman say: “I love The Smiths.”

I’m making this film seem like a serious character study. While it definitely goes deep and hits on some very touchy relationship issues, this is a very funny film. I was cringing at some of Tom’s action, especially as Summer tried to let him down gently, as I’ve known guys who were just so desperate to meet women who share their quirky interests that they end up making complete asses of themselves—this films allows you to laugh at those guys. Tom’s nonconformist hipster ideals are also hard to reconcile with his job as a copywriter for a greeting card company, and there are some hilarious clashes at his job as well. It’s not a heavy film, it actually feels quite light, but it doesn’t skimp on intellectual content.

I don’t know if 500 Days of Summer is a film for everyone. Tom and Summer are music buffs, so some of their dialogue there might go over the heads of casual listeners, and understanding this film also takes a level of self-awareness as to how forcing a relationship into an ideal can go wrong. For those looking for a smart comedy that intelligently dismantles common romantic comedy tropes, though, this is a great and somewhat unique film in that regard.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:35

Director: Marc Webb

Year: 2009

Genres: comedy, indie, romance

Rating: PG-13

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