Marc Webb: (500) Days of Summer (2009) | featured image
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoey Deschanel in (500 Days of Summer) (2009) | poster excerpt

How Should We Remember the Controversial Rom-Com ‘(500) Days of Summer’?

The debate over whether the 2009 rom-com (500) Days of Summer is sexist is valid, but the filmmaking and acting are superior to its dull contemporaries.

(500) Days of Summer
Marc Webb
Fox Searchlight
7 August 2009 (US)

Let’s give credit where credit is due: No film in the history of cinema better captures that just got laid feeling than (500) Days of Summer. This is its singular achievement. From the opening credits, the film crackles with stylistic flourishes that are as delightful as they are on the nose. Director Marc Webb cut his teeth making music videos, and in his feature film debut, he doesn’t hesitate to showcase his technical chops and maximalist leanings.

He presents scenes on split-screen, uses the direct address technique, and pulls off a laugh-out-loud parody of French New Wave cinema and Ingmar Bergman. But it’s an indelible dance sequence that follows an act of consummation between Summer (the luminous Zooey Deschanel) and Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that anyone who’s ever spent a night with a long-lusted-after crush can relate to. That sequence is the stylistic high point of a highly stylized film and an opportunity to consider the critical backlash (500) Days of Summer has experienced in recent years. 

Tom’s steadfast belief that Summer is the love of his life is the conviction that fuels this particular story. A Smiths completist with a large and bleeding heart, Tom pines for Summer with an intensity only Morrissey fans will understand. His pursuit ultimately ends in failure, and the story is told from his point of view in a series of non-linear flashbacks.

The stylistic devices Webb uses to gin up the material help to remind the audience that what they are watching is Tom’s recollection of individual episodes rather than a coherent and neutral portrait of an unfolding relationship. We all unconsciously edit our memories to match the moods with which we associate them; Webb’s conspicuous direction (using splitscreen for the scene in which Tom learns Summer is engaged to someone) changes the emotional tenor of the material to reflect Tom’s perception of the past. This manner of presentation offers Webb a challenge: how to adequately convey the elation Tom remembers feeling after he first sleeps with Summer. 

Webb’s solution is nothing short of brilliant. He cues up the Hall & Oates song “You Make My Dreams” and breaks out the bravura choreography. The morning after the night in question, which is implied rather than shown, Tom exits his apartment building to a swell of punchy power chords. He catches his reflection in a store window only to see Harrison Ford’s winking visage looking back at him. As he walks into a public park, he gives an unabashed and non-creepy shimmy. Every person on the street smiles in his direction or stops to shake his hand. He breaks into a full-on dance routine and a gaggle of pedestrians backs him up. A cartoon bird flutters onto his finger.

The metaphor is brilliant because it lacks subtlety. The invigoration that follows first-time intimacy with a person you love is unique and irrepressible. Webb shoots the scene in a way that perfectly evokes Tom’s state of mind but also enables the audience to gently chuckle at the fact that the dude onscreen believes the world is his oyster just because he got laid. They chuckle with endearment because they know (or can imagine) the feeling. 

The aesthetic playfulness of Tom’s post-coital dance — a playfulness that pervades many other scenes — is the primary reason (500) Days of Summer felt like a breath of fresh air upon its release in 2009. Webb’s direction and the pitch-perfect performances of the lead actors breathed life into a genre, the romantic comedy, that had become shopworn to the point of dull. Though technically an anti-romcom due to an ending that sends Tom and Summer in separate directions, (500) Days of Summer nevertheless indicated rehabilitation was possible. It offered a confident and refreshing counterpoint to the unimaginative and dull romcoms that had induced yawns and eyerolls throughout the 2000s

More contemporary critical assessments have not been as kind. In recent years, (500) Days of Summer has been held up as an example of patriarchal storytelling at its worst. This line of argument asserts that the film drunkenly celebrates the horny and borderline creepy longings of a male protagonist who vilifies a young woman for rejecting him. It flattens the object of the hero’s affection into a one-dimensional Manic Pixie Dream Girl while refusing to endorse her right to just say no. After all, it’s not Summer’s fault that she doesn’t reciprocate Tom’s starry-eyed belief that they are destined to spend the rest of their days together. Her point of view is as valid as his, but rather than acknowledge Summer’s perspective the film invests significant energy into portraying Tom as a sympathetic figure.

(500) Days of Summer begins with a series of black screens overlaid with text that backhandedly imply the story is based on a young woman named Jenny Beckman and that Ms. Beckman is a “bitch”. Placed there, that one word gives credence to the notion that the film has no interest in presenting the pair as equals whose relationship simply isn’t meant to last. Instead, Summer is the villain and Tom the scorned hero. 

Screen 1

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Screen 2
Especially you Jenny Beckman.

Screen 3
Bitch.

The critics who excoriate (500) Days of Summer are not without a point. The showcard that opens the film is an obvious misstep. The film was written by Scott Neustadter, and it is said that Jenny Beckman (the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) is the woman who inspired the screenplay. Regardless of Neustadter’s feelings for his muse, Webb or someone else involved with the production should have edited out the writer’s disclaimer. It’s a cheap device that elicited cheap laughs in the theater where I first saw the film. It gives some audience members an excuse to misinterpret the film as a condemnation of an uppity woman who rebuffed the super cool dude who liked her. No wonder (500) Days of Summer feels icky to some very smart people. 

It didn’t have to end up this way. Take that opening showcard out and (500) Days of Summer and it’s more challenging to characterize the film as mean-spirited toward Summer. Yes, Tom is the more fully realized character. We meet his friends and sister and are constantly reminded that he is an aspiring architect who could do great things in that profession if he’d just commit to it. We learn far less about Summer; she recounts her dating history at one point but never discloses whether she harbors any ambitions, professional or personal, other than enjoying life as a vivacious 20-year-old living in Los Angeles. 

The one-sidedness of the character development jibes with the notion that the story is ultimately Tom’s to tell. He’s recalling the relationship from his point of view and eventually comes to acknowledge that his failed attempt to woo Summer has forced him to change in ways that will improve the overall quality of his life for years to come. Summer can technically be construed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because she exists to inspire Tom, but the understated confidence Deschanel brings to the role, combined with the intriguing details about her character that pepper the script—she’s the kind of person who reads Oscar Wilde books in delis—paint Summer Finn as a far more compelling individual than other characters who fall under the umbrella of that 2000s-era trope. Summer’s predilections, like her fondness for Ringo Starr and appreciation of great literature, are certainly more intriguing than Tom’s Smiths obsession and inclination to wear large headphones like a 16-year old caught in the grips of I’m-angry-at-my-parents syndrome. 

The real problem with (500) Days of Summer is the larger context in which it exists, and this is a problem that cannot be placed entirely at its feet. Hollywood has never struggled to produce stories about love and other topics that frame narratives through the eyes of the male lead, but the industry continues to fall short of releasing female-centered films. One reason why (500) Days of Summer can seem so toxic is that there’s never been a (500) Days of Thomas to serve as a counterbalance. It’s high time we got an anti-romcom about an overly-sentimental young woman who aspires to be a filmmaker and joneses for an intriguing but non-committal dude she meets at her boring nine-to-five.  

The thing about (500) Days of Summer is that you could switch the leads and not miss a beat. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are that good. It’s easy to imagine Deschanel going full-on romantic in a Tom-like role, and it would be particularly enjoyable to spend two hours watching that version of Summer drive herself crazy over someone whose amorous feelings fell just short of hers. While there’s no question that Gordon-Levitt nails the emo-adjacent mannerisms that classify Tom as a specific kind of guy that was easy to spot in gentrifying urban neighborhoods during the late 2000s, he could easily have used his rich baritone voice and adeptness at jaunty dance moves to embody a dispassionate but somewhat goofy heartthrob who likes dating the lovestruck woman but doesn’t see a long-term future. 

As much as I enjoy the dance sequence that inspired this essay, I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t have been even more memorable and endearing if it featured Summer rather than Tom, Deschanel instead of Gordon-Levitt. Imagine a bizarro-world version of the film in which a romantically-inclined Summer, having just scored with Tom after months of craving physical intimacy, struts out of her apartment like the queen of the world. She glances at her reflection and sees Faye Dunaway. She dances in the park with an impromptu backup troupe. The alternate film celebrates her validation through sex and through the same lens of heartwarming endearment of the original and indulges her point of view while keeping Tom offscreen. I can’t think of an actress circa 2009 who would have been better suited than Deschanel to tackle such a scene. Ginger Roberts matched Fred Astaire step for step while in heels and moving backward. There’s no reason to doubt that Deschanel couldn’t have one-upped Gordon-Levitt’s performance had she been the center of Webb’s inspired choreography. 

(500) Days of Summer is a film that marks a series of moments in time that are worth remembering. For Deschanel, it was a hinge point in the trajectory of her career. She’d spent the 2000s using her captivating eyes and sultry voice to embody emotionally detached characters with varying degrees of personal baggage. In Adam Rapps’ 2005 film Winter Passing, Will Ferrell is the Manic Pixie Dream Boy who inspires a depressive actress played by Deschanel to reconnect with her father and move forward with her life.) Starting with Peyton Reed’s Yes Man (2008), she transitioned toward her adorkable New Girl phase, which blended twee-ish innocence and screwball zaniness—and briefly turned her into the hippest actress in Hollywood.

(500) Days of Summer, however, is the one film smart enough to employ Deschanel’s full range. She spends a wedding reception playing duck, duck, goose with kids (twee) and enjoys the penis game (whimsical); she embodies an aloof brand of cool that makes Kurt Cobain come across as impassioned. It’s a disarming performance because of the versatility of the performer. 

For Gordon-Levitt, it marked his graduation to fully adult roles, and while he’s never achieved full A-list status, he’s spent the past 12 years producing interesting and accomplished work. For culture at large, (500) Days of Summer epitomizes a now-defunct vibe that crested during the early Obama years. Its indie band-laden soundtrack, affinity for karaoke, and the retro clothes worn by the main characters are reminiscent of the upbeat, indie-rock-loving subculture that was nice hipsters’ rebuke to the trucker-hat wearing irony that also percolated during the 2000s. (Had the film been released a few years later, it probably would have been set in Brooklyn rather than Los Angeles; Tom would have sported a lumberjack beard, and organic pickles would have been woven into the story in some way or another.) 

The tragedy of (500) Days of Summer is that the film now seems destined to exist as a battleground for debate over whether the material constitutes an example of Hollywood’s sexist habits. The critics who detest it for foregrounding the point of view of Tom, a young man incapable of correctly reading the cues Summer gives him, are not wrong to denounce it; the idea that audiences are supposed to view Tom, not Summer, as the principal wrongdoer has merit. It’s a worthy debate that occludes the wonderful work Webb did to make (500) Days of Summer so much more entertaining than the garden variety romcoms of the 2000s. That’s how we should remember the film. Going forward, we hope that a similarly inventive rom-com will not only center on the female lead’s perspective but let her dance like crazy after having a bit of fun. 

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