I’ve heard some criticism of 500 Days of Summer (2009) for being a male fantasy. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Nice GuyTM while Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is merely a prize to catch. He doesn’t learn much about her, he doesn’t hear what she tells him, his only focus is on making sure she belongs to him. This isn’t untrue, but I’d like to think it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. 500 Days of Summer is basically every romantic comedy, but with the genders reversed.
I remember discussing pop culture portrayal of women’s romance in a grad school class. One of my classmates said that romcoms and the like were silly and unimportant when we discuss women in pop culture. To which I replied that when we are constantly being fed the messages in these movies and tv shows – that we lack value without a male partner, that we should direct all our energy in pursuit of one, that getting married is the most important thing we can do – we start to believe them. They’re important because this is culture attempting to tell us what it is acceptable for us to be. What makes 500 Days of Summer different is that it turns that male-female dynamic on its head. How many movies can we name where a woman pines after a man who can’t commit only to find out he’s settled down with someone who isn’t her? I don’t watch many romcoms, but I’m pretty sure that’s the start of every single one. (And then she straightens her hair, loses the glasses, puts on a hot dress and is suddenly worthy of the male gaze…but that’s another rant for another post.) The fact that we are here presented with the opposite is noteworthy.
Part of the problem may be that Tom isn’t a particularly likeable guy. I don’t disagree with that, but I also don’t think he’s meant to be. He’s actually pretty pathetic, purposely playing a song Summer likes and turning up the volume when she walks by, punching a guy who gets a little too flirtatious with her, claiming that he doesn’t want a serious relationship when he really does. Now, I’m not saying we can’t see a little bit ourselves in Tom’s actions, but usually when thinking back we’re disgusted with how much we let our infatuation consume us. For that’s what Tom’s relationship with Summer is – an infatuation, not love. He doesn’t see Summer for who she is and he doesn’t listen to what she wants. All he hears and sees is a perfection that he’s created in his mind.
I actually quite like JGL’s penchant for taking an ordinary story and telling it in a new way. He did the same in Don Jon, where he played a typical womanizer who learns to find love. That sounds cheesy as hell, but trust me, it’s a well-written and well-acted movie that doesn’t give us the same regurgitated bullshit about love that we’ve seen before. Same here. Tom’s Nice GuyTM schtick doesn’t win Summer over and he doesn’t get the girl. She remains independent and steadfast in their relationship and Tom has to deal with what that means for him. I welcome a love story where the woman gets to walk away and get what she wants and in this movie we have it.