A couple gazes at each other, holding hands, overlooking a scenic Los Angeles. Already we’re getting mixed signals: A narrator illustrates the incompatibility of the two, her engagement ring dazzles, the writer calls his ex a bitch as an endearing whistle hovers in the air. (500) Days of Summer is already using the pathos and techniques of a traditional romantic comedy to create a classic romance tale, with one important caveat: “This is not a love story.”
The movie is about Tom wrestling with reality; the reality of his relationship with Summer, the reality of love, the reality of his life. The themes, when written out, sound weighty, too magnificent for a simple romantic comedy to take on. But in many ways this movie—which flits between romance and comedy—is not a romantic comedy at all, but a coming of age film.
(500) Days of Summer looks at the romances that scatter our past, how they can inadvertently lead to something totally different than a wedding (although the ending does allude to the fact that they can also lead to a better fit down the line). In order to really engage with those themes, however, it adopts the mannerisms of a romantic comedy. But by turning them on their head with the depth and seriousness, it also rewards those themes with more poignancy, living up to its declaration that it “is not a love story.”
Perhaps one of the genres that requires the biggest leaps in imagination is the romantic comedy. Where else are two-dimensional characters, shallow emotional moments, and unbelievable gestures not just expected but encouraged?
Though the walls of a romantic comedy have been stretched and contracted since Hollywood came to be, its structure on film has always been remarkably similar. Whether as part of the present story or as part of an introduction to the plot, we usually we see boy meet girl, and then watch as they fall together over (usually) an abridged period of time.
(500) Days of Summer plays no such games.
When initially asked to tell his little sister what happened, we see Tom’s mental View Master flutter past us. Only later will we learn that only one of these memories held a deeper, darker, if ultimately rewarding, moment for Tom—the fight that pushes him to declare them “a couple, dammit.” The rest of the images are all smiles. That’s because this is how Tom remembers Summer: as Roger Ebert himself put it, a “series of joys and befuddlements.” To Tom, and by extension the audience, Summer is smart, funny, charming, beautiful, entrancing, and taken with him. And yet, she doesn’t think they’re dating.
Often called “cutesy” or “utterly unhelpful” by some critics at the time, the movie’s narrative structure is actually a vital framing device for the audience’s understanding of Tom’s fact. Love stories—whether happy or not—sprawl across months, sometimes years, without a definitive end. No one remembers them purely chronologically; we jump between the “end,” and the middle, and the beginning we didn’t even know was a beginning, and then back to a different middle. We remember the laughs. We wince at the pain. The free-flowing structure allows the movie to explore that, while also interrogating it.
The truth is we’re never clear on what or how Summer thinks about her and Tom’s relationship. Things seem to progress to definitively “serious” but that is—like the whole of the movie—all Tom’s perspective. We see the interplay of the highs and lows of the relationship as Tom sees it: filtered, if not overtly white-washed.
Like any film, a romantic comedy is an exercise in a very specific kind of world-building. Stretching all the way back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, romantic comedies demand a viewer to expect the world to exist beyond our own. Be they faeries that seek to make a match or just a world built on loony humor, romantic comedies are always intended to be a fantasy.
In this respect, (500) Days of Summer follows in the footsteps of traditional romantic comedies by creating its own heightened reality: Director Marc Webb stated that he wanted to give the movie a “classic look.” And so production had rules about which buildings (only those built before 1950s) and what sounds (old phone rings, as opposed to digital) could be used. Likewise, Summer’s wardrobe is reminiscent of 50’s fashion.
This also plays into how color is used in the film. Webb has said that he drew out the blues as the color representing “love” in the universe of (500) Days of Summer because of actress Zooey Deschanel’s eyes. It helps remind the audience that what they are seeing is an augmented reality, both as moviegoers experiencing the film and as a one-sided love story. Summer is almost always dressed in blues, her hair ribbons and apartment are decked out in it—and yet very infrequently does that splash over to Tom. His color palette is decidedly browns, oranges, and tans; from his khakis and sweater vests to the warm, streetlamp that colors his apartment even at night.
And Webb uses this device to play around with how Tom’s view of Summer might be changing even if he refuses to recognize it: As the days progress she starts wearing more and more brown, covering herself up with tweed jackets and moving away from her summery blue skirts. When Tom is ultimately forced to confront the bad stuff in the relationship, we see her in more darker, muted clothes than ever before. Her deep blues seem almost black, as if the relationship is suffocating her vibrancy. In the initial three hangouts post-breaking up (the train, the wedding, and the house party), Summer’s clothes seem to have bounced back to their usual pop.
These devices are used in order to invoke the feeling of a vintage romantic comedy, to inspire the feeling that love can conquer all madcap curveballs life throws at it. If this were a romantic comedy these signs, the vibe, this reality—it would all be a clear indicator that Tom and Summer would reunite, decked head to toe in blue, and ride off into the sunset. It’s what makes Summer’s defying of gender expectations feel all the more brutal to Tom. After all, this is not a love story.
Romantic comedy leads can often get away with bothering their friend with every whim; their lives are seemingly the engine powering the universe around them. Their loved ones all have their parts to play; their friends link up; their sisters somehow get involved with their boss. We see this in (500) Days of Summer too, but once again, with an illuminating twist.
Very seldom do the lives of the supporting players seem to exist outside Tom’s. Each of them inhabits a sort of cliche from the romantic comedy genre: The wise beyond her years little sister; the troupe of off-kilter supporting players; the existing-entirely-for-the-male-protagonist love interest. It may seem cheap to offer it up as an excuse for a half-written woman when the fact of the matter is Summer’s chapter in Tom’s life, the 500 days he will look back on someday, functions on a story level as a tool in his development. But though the scope is shallow, perhaps it’s reads like a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmaker. In a world as manufactured as (500) Days of Summer it’s fair to say there’s more nuance to its players’ shallow characterization.
As I mentioned above, what we know about the ins and outs of Summer’s life are actually fairly limited. That’s because we’re seeing the world from Tom’s perspective, with occasional interjections from an omnipotent narrator. We know Tom to be a romantic—the narrator tells us as much (as well as confirming that Tom’s reading of The Graduate was wrong, for what it’s worth)—and so it’s not surprising that his reality is tented by pillars of romantic comedy.
These aberrations of reality are fairly revealing of Tom: The now classic examples include the “Reality vs. Expectations” split screen, and the Hall and Oates inspired flash mob after he sleeps with Summer for the first time. But when his expectations don’t align with reality the path in front of him literally gets erased, suggesting he thought his life would find meaning if only he had the right partner. At his most depressed (and thanks to a doze in a cinema) his world takes on the framework of new-wave French film, devoid of color. While the emotions of the film stay grounded, the world is colored by Tom’s imagination. His friends appear to us as second bananas because in his story about Summer he sees them as such.
But in the “love documentary” sequence we see there’s more to them than Tom has shown us. Vance borrows a phrase from one of the cards to speak his truth about his 30-year relationship with his life, like Tom borrows from pop culture when he’s lovestruck. Though we know Paul is proud of his relationship with Robyn (goin’ strong since ‘97!), it isn’t until the black-and-white documentary sequence that he has a chance to really speak about her.
“Robyn is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.”
Which is why Summer seems so one-sided; she literally is. She’s her own person, but like the moon Tom can only see her in phases. “I think you’re just remembering the good stuff,” cautions his sister near the end of the film. “Next time you look back…I really think you should look again.” It’s then that Tom starts to realize how caged Summer was starting to seem; her big, doe eyes doubling as the wide-eyes of a frightened animal.
Harsh, yeah. But we see his blindness to Summer’s personhood in his first invitation to her apartment, when the narrator clues the audience in on Tom’s inner narrative:
For Tom Hansen, this was the night where everything changed. That wall Summer so often hid behind—the wall of distance, of space, of casual—that wall was slowly coming down. For here was Tom, in her world…a place few had been invited to see with their own eyes. And here was Summer, wanting him there. Him, no one else.
As he listened, Tom began to realize that these stories weren’t routinely told. These were stories one had to earn. He could feel the wall coming down. He wondered if anyone else had made it this far.
His experience is entirely in his own head, but with plenty of projections towards Summer. Even as he listens to her tell stories of his childhood, he’s caught up in the bigger picture of himself, and Summer, steamrolling whatever it is she’s actually been telling him. He’s strong enough to expect love, weak enough to be foolhardy, and too blindly in love with Summer to listen to her clear expression of boundaries.
“I’ve never told anyone that before,” says Summer cautiously.
“I guess I’m not just anyone,” Tom says, returning the focus to himself.
So what does this mean for love? Where do the grand gestures and deep affection fall in the realm of (500) Days of Summer? Summer’s not a girl, she’s a phase. What does it say that the film doesn’t pretend she’s anything else? How can a movie get away with using these “clear signs” to light the way to the altar only to leave young Werther jilted and alone?
Some see it as a sign that Tom was purely right (that Summer was wrong about what she wanted all along). Summer even seems to imply as much. But its ending doesn’t compromise the premise. Instead it seems like it’s just one more way Tom blew past signals. Summer’s choice to marry someone else is inconsequential. It’s her wisdom to not marry Tom that matters.
The maturity of the narrative is all in not forcing Summer to buckle to Hollywood convention. Instead it pushes Tom to grow up. Introduced as someone whose misreading of The Graduate fundamentally lead him to believe that the right partner would solve all his problem, he, like Benjamin Braddock, is discontent with his place at life and ready to project himself forward with a partner, placing himself in what he believes to be the love story to end all love stories. Well intentioned as Tom is, it’s a selfish motivation. Instead of focusing on what he could bring to Summer, he sets his sights on what she can do for him—an easy, juvenile mindset that we all grow out of. He sees himself as fully baked, only missing Summer as the final ingredient. Only he’s not.
This is a story of boy meets girl. But this is not a love story. For Tom it’s almost a story about how love is a fantasy. To him, a brief and shining moment (give or take a couple hundred days) led him to nothing but ruin. “Complete and utter bullshit.” But then, one last time, Summer takes his hand and guides his way.
Summer: Well, you know, I guess it’s ’cause I was sitting in a deli and reading Dorian Gray and a guy comes up to me and asks me about it and… now he’s my husband.
Tom: Yeah. And… So?
Summer: So, what if I’d gone to the movies? What if I had gone somewhere else for lunch? What if I’d gotten there 10 minutes later? It was, it was meant to be. And… I just kept thinking… Tom was right.
Summer: Yeah, I did…I did. It just wasn’t me that you were right about.
Instead the movie leaves us with an almost absurdly simple lesson with a complicated wake: Love is more than two-dimensional. It’s two-sided. The movie is about Tom coming to terms with that, finally understanding that it’s not as simple as he once made it out to be, nor as ruinous as Summer seemed to think it. (500) Days of Summer is not a love story. It’s a coming of age tale, wrapped up in a blue, romantic comedy bow.