When Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.  

The most memorable sequence of (500) Days Of Summer plays out in split screen, with one side capturing the romanticized expectations of how a party will go and the other side depicting the disappointing reality. It’s an aching gut punch of a scene that uses the language of cinema to encapsulate a feeling most people have probably experienced but never quite been able to articulate so succinctly. It’s also a thesis statement for the film. (500) Days Of Summer is all about challenging expectations. It lulls its audience with comfortable romantic comedy beats only to upend the expected end point. And it challenges the entitlement of a misguided young male protagonist who’s so busy idealizing the woman he’s dating that he’s never able to see her full humanity. Unless maybe it doesn’t.

In the decade since its release (the film turned 10 last week), (500) Days Of Summer has inspired endless debates about what it’s trying to say, how effectively it says it, and whether the fact that it can easily be misread is a flaw of the film or its audience. (It’s like the Fight Club of rom-coms.) In one reading, aspiring architect turned greeting card writer Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an endearing romantic hero cruelly mistreated by free-spirited, commitment-phobic Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). In another—the one seemingly intended by the film’s creators—Tom is a selfish and myopic guy who projects an unfair fantasy onto a woman who’s consistently honest and upfront about the limits of what she wants. Ironically (or presciently), part of what drives Tom and Summer apart are their divergent reactions to The Graduate. He misreads it as a romance; she sees it as a melancholy cautionary tale. It’s not hard to imagine a couple having a similar disagreement about the meaning of this film.

The debut feature from music video director and future Amazing Spider-Man helmer Marc Webb, (500) Days Of Summer was a Sundance hit that became a critical and commercial sleeper success in the summer of 2009. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel’s real-life friendship translated into an electric onscreen connection and spilled over into fun promotional projects including a Sid And Nancy homage and a dance-heavy music video. The film’s popularity propelled Gordon-Levitt from teen star to full-on leading man and solidified a public persona Deschanel has been contending with ever since. (500) Days is twee and whimsical in a way that’s often endearing and sometimes exhausting, and a lot of that got unfairly laid at Deschanel’s feet.

Although (500) Days followed in the footsteps of quirky aughts romances like Garden State and Elizabethtown, it still felt like a breath of fresh air at a time when the romantic comedy genre was dominated by abysmal studio fare like He’s Just Not That Into You and Failure To Launch. Unlike those formulaic films, (500) Days overflows with style, from a nonlinear structure that bounces back and forth across the 500 days of Tom’s infatuation with Summer to fantasy sequences that evoke everything from MGM musicals to Fellini films. It quickly became an era-defining romantic comedy for a certain subset of millennials, back before the term “millennial” was even in regular use. One review described the film as “the first great cinematic romance of the Facebook generation.”

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(500) Days is a puzzle box movie. We learn early on that Summer breaks up with Tom on day 290, which sends him spiraling into misery. The question of what drove her away and whether they’ll get back together hangs over the rest of the film. “This is not a love story,” the narrator warns us, but the movie opens on day 488 with the image of Summer and Tom sitting on a park bench looking contented, a wedding ring on her finger. Which expectation is going to get subverted?

This video and this timeline helpfully break down the actual chronology of Tom and Summer’s relationship: After Tom pines after her for a month, the two casually date for about eight months. He then spends six months wallowing in breakup grief, with a thwarted hope of reunion that pushes him to take charge of his life in a bold way. The chronology isn’t all that important, however, as the film is more interested in capturing the nonlinear, subjective way memory works. A failed attempt to make a joke at IKEA on day 282 is contrasted with day 34, when the jokey IKEA banter flowed freely and easily. When Tom’s remembering the good times, he flashes back to snippets of happy smiles and intimate moments. When he tries to analyze where things went wrong, those same images play out in longer takes and we see the detachment and distance Tom had selectively edited out.

With its Mad Men inspired retro-hipster aesthetic and Regina Spektor-heavy soundtrack, (500) Days Of Summer feels very 2009, which isn’t a time period I would’ve thought had a defining style until I rewatched the film. Of course, that also means there are some things that feel incredibly dated, like characters using “gay” and “skank” as punchlines. Or an opening title card that gives a standard disclaimer about the film being a work of fiction with resemblance to real-life people being purely coincidental, before two subsequent title cards note: “Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.” It’s meant to be cheeky and ironic, but it’s a harsh way to start the film, especially from today’s eyes. It also works against the idea that (500) Days Of Summer is ultimately interested in exploring Tom’s flaws, not vilifying Summer.

In fact, (500) Days Of Summer started as a revenge rom-com for writer Scott Neustadter, who had his heart broken by “Jenny Beckman” (which may or may not be her real name) and worked with writing partner Michael H. Weber to channel his grief into art. (The duo would later go on to write The Spectacular Now, The Fault In Our Stars, and The Disaster Artist.) Neustadter claims the film is 75 percent based on real life. When he showed it to the real Beckman, however, she related to Tom, not Summer. Neustadter found that ironic. I have to wonder if it’s deeply telling.

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Beyond its overt stylistic flourishes, the central conceit (or flaw, depending on your point of view) is that (500) Days Of Summer is told exclusively from Tom’s perspective. We see Summer solely as Tom sees her, and he’s more interested in superficially idolizing her than in actually getting to know her. Upon learning that his workplace crush also likes The Smiths, Gordon-Levitt delivers a hilariously self-serious “Holy shit,” as if the Earth had just shifted on its axis. When their other tastes don’t align—when Summer doesn’t know who Spearmint are or isn’t interested in railing against modern fashion—Tom quickly changes the subject to something they agree upon rather than actually talking to her about her opinions.

Yet purposefully keeping Summer opaque doesn’t always play as a subversive choice in a broader cinematic landscape where female characters are often written as one-note ciphers by default. The movie’s feminist get-out-of-jail-free card—which it voices directly when Tom relays his relationship woes on a bad first date—is that because Summer was upfront from the beginning about not wanting a boyfriend, Tom has nothing to be mad about. Personally, I find the idea that Summer’s entirely blameless to be as uninteresting as the idea that she’s entirely villainous. There’s sometimes a gulf between what Summer says and how she acts, which is as interesting and relatable as any of Tom’s flaws. I spend most of the movie wishing I could get inside Summer’s head and dig into her foibles, which maybe just means it’s succeeded at fully putting me in Tom’s shoes. Still, I always leave (500) Days feeling frustrated by its ambiguity, rather than fulfilled by it.

A cottage industry of video essays (including very good ones by Screened, Movies Under The Surface, and Movies I Love) have broken down the subtle ways in which the film challenges Tom’s flaws and depicts his maturation. Yet the fact that Gordon-Levitt has spent the past 10 years encouraging people to rewatch the film in order to pick up on Tom’s selfishness perhaps means that idea doesn’t land as strongly as it should. Was treating its central arc this subtly the right choice for a movie that paints with such a big, bold, unsubtle brush elsewhere? My Best Friend’s Wedding doesn’t have the same arthouse cred as (500) Days Of Summer, but it does a far more effective job of explicitly depicting its protagonist’s flaws as flaws. Indeed, a lot of what (500) Days Of Summer is trying to do—including being a coming-of-age story disguised as a romantic comedy—is actually common rom-com storytelling, however much the film sometimes seems to pat itself on the back for subverting genre.

More than a meaningful coming-of-age story or a deconstructed romantic comedy, (500) Days Of Summer works best as a celebration of the value of a breakup. For all the pain they cause one another, Tom and Summer push each other to gain a better sense of what they want out of life. From Tom’s point of view, it’s devastating to hear that Summer’s perpetual uncertainty about him made her more confident about her genuine feelings for the next guy she dated. From her point of view, however, he’s essentially just “the Baxter” who pushed her to find her actual true love. Tom, meanwhile, learns to balance his inherent romanticism with some much-needed practicality and maturity, both in his personal life and professional one.

Though some find it groan-worthy, I quite like the note (500) Days Of Summer ends on, with Tom meeting a new girl (named Autumn, no less!) and the title cards flipping back to day one. Time heals all, and while there’s no guarantee that Autumn will be his perfect partner, he decides it’s worth risking the heartbreak to find out, which is a romantic idea in and of itself. (500) Days Of Summer is a beautifully shot, frequently poignant cinematic experiment that never quite adds up to something greater. That makes the appreciable simplicity of its last moment stand out all the more.

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Next time: It’s a rom-com showdown, pitting No Strings Attached against Friends With Benefits.