Film Discussion

500 Days of Summer (2009) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

There is perhaps no other romantic comedy that has provoked as much debate since its release in the 21st century as 500 Days of Summer. Its tenth anniversary two years ago even reignited much of that debate, with many articles and video essays attempting to get to grips with its characters, themes, and story.

Opening in 2009, and becoming something of a favourite with audiences right from its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Marc Webb’s film on the surface might look like a typical romantic comedy what with its quirky air, brilliant soundtrack, and good looking pair of actors, but it is a film that remains a complex one.

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A spiritual cousin of sorts to 1977’s Annie Hall (a film that would have been an ideal choice on the surface to cover for Rom-Com Rewind but which – for reasons that should be obvious – I didn’t want to explore because of its leading actor and writer/director), the film subverts rom-com structures by going for a non-linear structure where its central relationship is shown at differing points, and a story that really wants to go to town in ripping apart and seeing what makes that relationship and its characters tick.

In different hands, the film might have been a self-important one with pretensions and a lack of fun, but for something that has managed to invoke such a reaction amongst audiences, the film is refreshingly light and sharp, with a touch that never becomes maudlin or too self-consciously quirky. It’s a hard balance to pull off, but the screenplay from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber pushes and pulls in so many directions, and it’s directed with visual panache from Webb (whose previous work was in pop videos and who would go on to direct several episodes of the equally subversive and brilliant Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) that even away from some deeper exploration of what transpires over the course of its story, it works as a prime example of the type of indie flavoured comedy that Hollywood produced a lot with their independent labels, in this case Fox Searchlight.

Narrated by an unidentified storyteller, the film explores the relationship between Tom and the titular Summer. Played by Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, the two have the quintessential look of a pair of indie romantic comedy leads, and the film was made just as both were on the cusp of hitting mainstream success; Levitt with Inception, and Deschanel as the star of the hit comedy series New Girl. There is a quirky, stylish gloss to the film that is no doubt the work of Webb, who brings a lovely pop video quality to it, but it’s the Weber and Neustadter screenplay that hides the film’s more deceptively complex leanings.

What is forever fascinating about the rom-com genre, despite the glossier and comedic nature of so many of the films that populate it, is how they inevitably can provoke so much analysis and debate about the nature of the relationships within them. The passage of time and changing social attitudes means that inevitably some films can play very differently years after their initial release, but 500 Days really wants to go to town in its explorations as to what constitutes a healthy relationship.

Best of all, it filters this relationship through gender and two of the genre’s most (in)famous character tropes; the so-called nice guy and the manic pixie dream girl. The casting of Levitt and Deschanel is perhaps the masterstroke of the film in some respects, as it ends up having its two leads personified by actors best known for playing characters within the realm of those character archetypes.

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Deschanel herself became very much associated with the term manic pixie dream girl, and characters such as the one she played here were part and parcel of so many romantic comedy dramas in a sea of films that featured ‘sensitive nice guys’ being taught life lessons by their relationships with these female characters in general. The term was coined by critic Nathan Rabin in response to Cameron Crowe’s disappointingly ill-thought out Elizabethtown and the female lead character portrayed by Kirsten Dunst,who had nothing else to offer but quirkier character moments and opportunities for Orlando Bloom’s lead character to rediscover himself after the loss of his father.

Elizabethtown should have been a great film, given that it was written and directed by Crowe after having come off the back of a run of superlative films such as Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous (where Kate Hudson played a similar version of the trope and Deschanel played a supporting role), and the underrated Vanilla Sky. It had a lot of potential, but was let down by an ill-judged suicide joke in its opening scene, and a clearly miscast Bloom who showed little charm or talent to really make his performance engage in the way that Crowe was aiming for.

Where Elizabethtown got it spectacularly wrong, 500 Days of Summer got it mostly correct. The film has much to say about how a character like Tom views someone like Summer, and where many other romantic comedies come in for critical reasseesements of their stories and characters, due to a lack of self-awareness over elements that might play as toxic in later years, those analyes and criticisms are somewhat baked into the script, direction and performances here. Levitt himself is quoted in interviews as thinking that his character is not one that can be defined as a hero and that any reading such as that would be incorrect.

Levitt being as charming a presence as he is, you can’t help but like the character, even though you will watch whilst being critical of his seeming inability to not listen to Summer’s proclamations that she doesn’t want a relationship with him, and instead wants something more casual. As for Summer, Deschanel plays inherent complexities into her character, and even though the film is told from the point of view of Tom, there are subtle suggestions throughout Deschanel’s performance which hint at more serious realities that Tom is unaware of but which we the audience see glimpses of.

Don’t let the quirky and indie-cool flavours of the film fool you. Yes, the soundtrack is superb, with glorious use of The Temper Trap and Regina Spektor throughout, not to mention a gorgeous score from Mychael Danna and Rob Simonson, but there is an emotional undercurrent that becomes poignant as the harsher realities of relationships come more to the forefront, while its Los Angeles setting doesn’t rely on the typical use of sun bursting into the screen and palm trees everywhere, as so many LA set rom-coms are prone to do. It would make a brilliant tonal companion piece to Steve Martin’s LA Story.

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Twelve years after its release, the film is still being talked about. Even away from its tenth anniversary two years ago, there are still video essays being produced about the film, and the impact of the term manic-pixie dream girl is still somewhat of a controversial thing. That the passing of a decade since its release was marked by an Entertainment Weekly cover story featuring its two leads still says a lot about how much of a quiet impact the film made, and how much of a cornerstone of the genre it will no doubt continue to become as the years goes on.

It’s a genuinely brilliant film, and while in the end its focus squarely on events from Tom’s point of view means that it inevitably still falls into being one driven by a ‘sensitive nice guy’, it’s one that has more self-awareness to what’s going on and as such is perhaps one of the most intelligent offerings the genre has offered in the 21st century.

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