It’s been almost seven years since 500 Days of Summer was released. Every year since that release date I’ve watched the movie at least once. I’m still convinced that the film is one of the masterpieces of the millennium and manages to be overcome of the most difficult challenges of any film (or artwork). Namely, the film is both popular and appealing to a wide audience without seeming formless or pandering. Too often films that are made for everyone end up being films for no one. This isn’t the case in 500 Days of Summer.
Only in hindsight have I realized it’s a film for everyone. When I’d first watched it, it seemed quite straightforward. Tom was good and hopeful and Summer was evil. This is the kind of analysis I was able to do at 20. And of course, completely lacking the grounding to realize there’s another perspective to the film, I was convinced the narrative I’d seen was right. Much like in Love in the Time of Cholera (another favourite of my teenage self) I’d missed entire worlds of layers under the obvious story.
But Love in the Time of Cholera is still a literary masterpiece and 500 Days of Summer is still an amazing film, despite the changes in my perspective. I’d even say because of the changes in my perspective.
There are only two reasons to watch a film multiple times. The first is because the film is predictable and the familiarity of knowing what to expect never becomes dated or dull. No matter how many times I watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I never tire of the Mexican standoff scene even though the initial tension of wondering who will shoot first is long gone.
The second reason is because every time a film is watched there is something new that’s noticed. Maybe not in the film itself but just the act of watching the film brings to mind history and nostalgia which one compares the future against. Perhaps the dialogue of the film speaks philosophically enough to bring up both familiarity with the character’s ideas and self-reflection (in this sense Before Sunset is the most Proustian of films).
500 Days of Summer obviously lies in the second category. As I’ve said before, I identified heavily with Tom when I first saw the film. Tom was the man that many thought they were and went through an experience that many have thought to be the defining moment of their mental development.
In the simple version, Tom thinks he’s a good guy and believes that by virtue of being a good guy things should go in his favour. He’s almost wholly ignorant of what Summer says she wants because they don’t match up with his ideas of a relationship and his ideas of a relationship are obviously what everyone should want. By not appreciating Tom, Summer represents evil and (almost) breaks his hope in romance leaving him bitter.
In this reading of the film, Tom is always right and Summer is always wrong. I didn’t realize Tom might have not been 100% right on everything until about 2012.
The reality is (unless I watch this again in 2022 and decide again) is that Tom makes errors because he doesn’t live in reality. Summer is a real person but Tom’s Summer exists in his head. In the entire film, it’s Tom’s early-teenage sister who is the most logical. The entire film is drenched in quality quotes but one that really sticks is “Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn't mean she's your soul mate.”
There are other things that make the film amazing other than the script and storyline. The soundtrack definitely plays a huge part and the non-linear storyline definitely is critical to the success of the script. The acting is, of course, of the highest quality and I think quite a lot of people would love more collaborations between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoeey Deschanel. There's gorgeous set pieces such as the musical scene and especially the "Reality and Expectations" scene. But I’m sticking to the storyline for why this film is underrated.
One of the reasons this film can be for everyone is that we’ve all been there. Maybe I didn’t understand the errors Tom was making but I’d been Tom. Almost everyone has been Tom at some point and most people have played the Summer role. Because many relationships fail due to the balancing act of one person wanting more than the other is willing to give, pretty much everyone can relate to Tom wanting a “real” relationship and equally relate to Summer not wanting to be too serious.
I think at some point everyone would quote Summer in “I, like being on my own. I think relationships are messy and people’s feelings get hurt. Who needs it? We’re young, we live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world; might as well have fun while we can and, save the serious stuff for later.” But also at different times it’s equally likely “I love how she makes me feel, like anything's possible, or like life is worth it.” As said by Tom is more accurate to describe life.
And that’s what the movie does perfectly. It achieves balance. It tells the story of the relationship from start to end, with flashbacks giving perspectives. It doesn’t force a romantic story onto the viewer but neither does it drown the film in depression and easy clichés. The abandonment of clichés is difficult to find in romance films. Almost impossible, really. Most people love romance films for familiarity but the breath of fresh air from something really different can sometimes be far more memorable than the familiar.
In closing, my favourite quote from the film is:
“Isn't that sweet? Ain't love grand? This is exactly what I'm talking about. What does that even mean, love? Do you know? Do you? Anybody? If somebody gave me this card Mr. Vance, I'd eat it. It's these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they're to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything. We're responsible. I'M responsible. I think we do a bad thing here. People should be able to say how they feel, how they really feel, not ya know, some words that some stranger put in their mouth. Words like love, that don't mean anything. Sorry, I'm sorry, I um, I quit. There's enough bullshit in the world without my help.”
Final point- I hate the final scene with Autumn because it makes it seem like Tom's learnt nothing. Ideally he'd have realized by the end that no other person can give your life meaning.