Stripped Of The Hype, (500) Days Of Summer Is Just Another Tired Revenge Movie

Photo: Watermark/Kobal/Shutterstock.
In 2010, I took the plunge and got blunt bangs. I’d been thinking about it for months, debating whether or not I could pull them off (I could not), and if they’d be a nuisance given the curly texture of my hair (they were a nightmare, though now I wish I'd just kept them curly). I blame this ill-fated decision on a summer 2009 screening of (500) Days of Summer, a film that catapulted Zooey Deschanel and her manic pixie dream bangs into pop culture history.
It’s been 10 years since (500) Days of Summer opened to rave reviews — the film currently holds an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and hailed as a rom-com for cynics, a response to traditional, saccharine romance movies of yore. It earned over $60 million at the box office. Directed by Marc Webb from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, this was the cool kids’ love story, one that involved trips to IKEA and The Smiths! The boy was the romantic, and the girl didn’t believe in love! To this day, the film remains a cult classic, a time capsule of late 2009 earnest hipster aspirations, with a banging soundtrack. (“Vagabond” by Wolfmother! “Us” by Regina Spektor! “The Boy with the Arab Strap” by Belle and Sebastian! What a time to be alive.)
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And then there was the unusual narrative structure, which flitted backwards and forwards through the relationship timeline, emulating real memories of a man whose life has been shattered by a breakup, searching for meaning.
Even at the time, reactions abounded about the paternalistic nature of the story, whose non-linear format prizes Tom’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) perspective exclusively, only focusing on Summer (Deschanel) — whose name the movie bears — when showing how her presence somehow impacted his life.
But it was all right there in the intro, when a deeply pretentious narrator informed us that “this is a story of boy meets girl.” He was right. (500) Days of Summer isn’t actually about Summer at all. It’s about the boy — in this case Tom — whose relationship with the girl — Summer — furthers his own quest towards self-fulfillment. We know nothing about her beyond what he tells us. She’s not a person. She’s an idea, a fantasy of the quirky, spontaneous, unknowable girl of his dreams. In other words, she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Deschanel’s Summer Finn wasn’t the first Manic Pixie Dream Girl — that title goes to Natalie Portman in Garden State, though the term was actually coined for Kirstin Dunst in Elizabethtown — but she does represent the pinnacle of the trope. With her twee 1964-via-Anthropology wardrobe, her contrarian taste in music (Ringo? Really?), her ability to scream “Penis!” into a crowd of people without shame, and her stubborn refusal to believe in love, she’s the ultimate manifestation of a man’s idea of a female weirdo — one that’s still sexually attractive, with just enough mystery to allow him to fill in the blanks of her personality with his own desires.
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Two years later, Gone Girl introduced a new version of the trope, the “cool girl,” but Summer was squarely defined by the man mesmerized by her quirkiness. The Cool Girl controls her own destiny by manipulating men’s opinions of her using feminine wiles. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is discarded; the cool girl does the discarding.
The fact that Summer is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl isn’t a new revelation, nor is the idea that she’s not the villain of this story, though Tom sees her that way. Last year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt responded to a tweet chastising Zooey Deschanel’s character, writing: “Watch it again,” the actor wrote. “It’s mostly Tom’s fault. He’s projecting. He’s not listening. He’s selfish. Luckily he grows by the end.”
But even then, as Ali Banach notes in her piece for The Observer, he’s doubling down on the film’s mission, focusing once more on Tom’s growth at the expense of Summer’s character development.
Many things about (500) Days of Summer haven’t aged well. McKenzie (Geoffrey Arend), Tom and Summer’s colleague, makes multiple gay jokes, offensive even by 2009 standards. When Tom’s sister, played by a young Chloe Grace Moretz, suggests that he may be misreading Summer’s signals, McKenzie suggests she might be on her period, and therefore subject to mood swings, because women — their emotions make them crazy!
But the most egregiously dated part of the movie is actually the disclaimer at the very beginning, claiming that “any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental,” adding: '”Especially you, Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”
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Writing in The Daily Mail in 2009, Neustadter admitted that the movie was written to purge his soul of vengeful feelings towards an ex-girlfriend who dumped him (although we still don’t know if that was her real name). “The finished film tells it all just as it happened,” he wrote in an essay pegged to the film’s U.K. release. “However embarrassing my puppy-like devotion and however aloof it makes her look.”
Once again, though, rather than clear up any misunderstanding about the film’s motives, Neustadter’s words only serve to reinforce the problem. Tom is cast as the hopeless romantic who, lost in his feelings, falls for the wrong girl, while Summer’s actions are described as “aloof.” In fact, she’s not. Throughout the movie, Summer repeatedly tells Tom that she’s not interested in a long-term relationship. But rather than take her at her word, he sees this as a challenge, and persists in his delusional belief that he’ll be the one to win her over. Therefore, her every action is depicted through that lens. Told from Summer’s perspective, the film might be called (500) Days Of Convincing That Cute-ish Guy We’re Just Fuck Friends, Why Doesn’t He Get It?
And though one could argue, like Gordon-Levitt, that this is all actually meant to prove just how narrow-minded Tom is being, the fact is that the movie puts us on his side. We are supposed to be upset when Summer suggests that they’re just friends with benefits, even after she initiates shower sex. (What was she thinking? Everyone knows sex in non-conventional spaces is just for couples.) We want them to end up together. It’s not enough to tell us that Tom is the one at fault. You have to show us — and (500) Days of Summer simply isn’t interested in doing that. By the end, he just transfers those same expectations and idealism to another woman: the symbolically-named Autumn (Minka Kelly).
You may ask yourself what the difference is between this movie, and say, Ari Aster’s more recent Midsommar, a horror movie the director wrote following a painful break-up. And that’s a fair point — movie culture is littered with the hurt feelings of male creators. But I’d also argue that in making the protagonist a woman finding her community in the face of a selfish partner, Aster depicts real emotional growth. Unlike Tom, who simply finds another seasonally-named romantic interests to peg his hopes to, Dani (Florence Pugh) evolves beyond her original expectations, freeing herself from the cycle.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say (500) Days of Summer deserves to be erased from the canon. It’s an important stepping stone to our more recent — and far more inclusive — rom-com renaissance, one that expands beyond white, affluent heteronormative depictions of romance. If nothing else, its “Expectations” vs. “Reality” montage was way ahead of its time. But it’s no longer a movie that can be categorized as aspirational. Like those ill-fated bangs that took years to grow out, it’s a movie whose aesthetics and messaging is best left in the past — even if you do look back fondly from time to time.
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