“(500) Days of Summer” Hasn’t Aged That Well

On the Valentine’s Day of its tenth anniversary, we look back on the romantic flick that inadvertently defined a generation of carefully curated twee.

It’s officially been ten years since Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen fell in love with Zooey Deschanel’s Summer Finn over a shared elevator ride and a startlingly mutual adoration for The Smiths. Well, startling to Tom: “You like The Smiths?” he asks, boyishly awestruck while Summer laughs, sings along to “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” and leaves him muttering “holy shit” under his breath. Truly the beginning of any deeply stylized infatuation: an over-projection of cliché common interests leading to some sort of desperately wrought and woefully underdeveloped “she gets me” feeling.  

But, as the tagline for the indie hit based on writer Scott Neustadter’s own heartache goes, this is a story which is not a love story. (500) Days of Summer was supposedly intended as a deconstruction of what it means to fall for someone, project onto them, and in Gordon-Levitt’s own words, star in a self-conscious tale devoid of dramatic irony about it. Which, of course, makes the film’s long-lasting cultural legacy most ironic of all.

That it wasn’t trying to be the triumphant inheritor of the white hipster romance, à la Zach Braff’s Garden State or Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, makes the ease with which Tom and Summer were seen as successors of the enduring “nice guy” and “manic pixie dream girl” trope a little surprising. It also leaves the film’s shallow whimsy guilty of a crime it didn’t intend to commit. Although the fairy-tale voiceover following the narrative, the interspersal of faux film camera editing in gloomy coming-of-age moments, and Tom and Summer’s own endless aesthetic affectations are all as carefully curated as Tom’s judgement of who Summer is in the end, the furnishings of these two twentysomethings—quirky enough to endear in their premeditated earnestness, just the right amount of shabby in their white liberal chicness—seem only to elicit the exact feeling (500) Days of Summer initially sought to criticize: romanticization.

The “Zooey Deschanel” is featured as a classic hipster haircut in the odd coffee-table book, and inoffensively offensive birthday gift, How To Spot a Hipster by Jeremy Cassar.

According to its record-keeping of a now decidedly less earnest subculture, long layered hair coupled with thick bangs is the most enviable hairdo for those seeking to model themselves on certain indie-cum-mainstream starlets; and according to a suggested search upon googling the film, Deschanel’s style as Summer Finn remains enviable to those who may not recognize latent traces of its sweet eccentricity still alive, a decade later, in the Instagram feeds of craft beer–loving influencers with suspiciously undiverse friendship groups, vintage style bloggers, and elementary school teachers.

It’s just like the bus of endless Summers that Tom imagines in the midst of his “maybe she doesn’t get me at all” heartache; an easily idealized identity in an easily idealized film eventually becomes more symbol than substance. It’s Summer’s deliberately evasive allure—an attempt to distance herself from Tom’s innocuous but persistent charm—which traps her as a mere symbol instead of a real person; to him, and, at first, everyone watching the five hundred days play out.

“Watch it again,” Gordon-Levitt tweeted to a complaint of Tom’s mistreatment at Summer’s hands last year. “It’s mostly Tom’s fault. He’s projecting. He’s not listening. He’s selfish. Luckily he grows by the end.”

“I love the way she makes me feel,” he says, encapsulating the limitations of his own self-absorption in a single, seemingly affectionate phrase, while Summer’s non-existent voice only grows louder in re-watches.

It’s difficult to miss the scathing writer’s note at the beginning of the film: a perfunctory insistence that the narrative is fictitious, and bears only coincidental resemblance to any real person, “especially you Jenny Beckman.” Fade to black. Cut to one cutting word: “Bitch.” And the end of the film only presents Tom with another girl with a seasonal name to fall for, and fail to understand and consider—in the secret enclave of his own rejected mind—a bitch.

Still, perhaps it was the endearingly twee synchronicity of Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt in the late 2000s, encouraged by ukulele-playing duet videos upon the film’s release, and the strange balance with which both seemed to walk the line between sincerity and sarcasm in interviews, which so encouraged the numbingly romantic and deeply patriarchal assumption that Tom was deserving of Summer. In an era largely absent of women-led narratives—and comprised of indies penned by people living in LA or NYC—audiences centralized Tom’s hurt sensibilities so completely that at first, not feeling sympathy for the hollow pain of a wounded greeting-card-writer with a penchant for Joy Division shirts and musical dance sequences seemed monstrous. The laughability of the sort of person Tom is supposed to be only came later.

“I love the way she makes me feel,” he says, encapsulating the limitations of his own self-absorption in a single, seemingly affectionate phrase, while Summer’s non-existent voice only grows louder in re-watches.

A somewhat unconventional white woman growing up with the burden of her own secretly felt angst, desiring the dopamine hit of others acknowledging that angst, might have been Summer’s story if (500) Days of Summer had come out a decade later, in the indie age of Greta Gerwig and the surplus of narratives dedicated to flawed and usually deeply unlikeable suburban bohemian disaster women. Now, eccentricities seem only to point to insecurities, played up for laughs in Portlandia, or narcissism on Lena Dunham’s Girls, and humanizing them comes with pride: that hipster white women can be villainous—bitches in the eye of an infatuated male writer—without the racialized undertone reserved for true condemnation, and with the infinite fascination of a forever crush.

Still, Summer Finn lives in 2009. And although the dynamic of idealization Neustadter wrote for her unravels as (500) Days of Summer draws to a close, and Tom Hanson watches her leave, and our cultural dialogue encourages the suggestion deployed by Neustadter later, that this was the point all along, Tom and Summer were still written, in the very beginning, as likeable young protagonists: muddling along in their mild middle-class occupations, racing around IKEAs at the peak of their red-cheeked infatuation, just liberal enough to laugh off a joke about a Chinese family without drawing criticisms of casual racism, just nice enough to ruin one another.

Even if one of them doesn’t really know the other at all. FL

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