Finding Autumn: Why (500) Days of Summer is the Most Honest Romance Film
Too often romance films refuse to reflect real life. This is a thought my film students often present before screening (500) Days of Summer. Films, as part of our culture, can dictate societal norms and expectations in regards to social situations and institutions, and even love. Viewers, of course, can decide what to accept and reject as realistic. More specifically, the films we watch have the power to generate what we deem normal or acceptable, even desirable. Contrasting the plethora of interchangeable romance narratives in popular culture, (500) Days of Summer addresses the problem in a unique and engaging way.
(500) Days of Summer is focused on Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who believes in the Hollywood type of true love and feels Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the one for him. Tom works for a greeting card company and writes romance cards although his true passion is architecture. When Summer moves to Los Angeles and begins working at the same company, Tom falls for her. Summer, described as an average girl, seems to have an undeniable impact on everyone she meets. Though Summer shows no interest in an official relationship, she allows Tom to pursue her. The story is told in a nonlinear fashion that keeps the narrative balanced between the highs and lows of the relationship rollercoaster.
The film’s humor is more rhetorical and less escapist than traditional rom-coms. For example, the film opens with a sentence telling us this story should not have a similarity to anyone and ends with “especially Jenny Beckman…bitch.” This tells us right away this is a very personal story and that such jokes are likely supplemented based on truth. This combination of earnest and comedic emotions helps us connect to the film it rings truer to the ebb and flow of life. The story is relatable because the emotions are relatable, instead of built out of shallow and unrealistic wooing practices. In fact, the Hollywood/Hallmark view of romance is mocked in (500) Days of Summer in a particularly great scene (see below).
Drawing from Tom’s memory, the film reflects on a failed relationship while trying to make sense of what happened. Tom put his idea of love onto an unattainable pedestal and believed happiness would only be found through his dream girl. Believing Summer was ‘the one,’ and after not speaking for a while, Tom becomes heartbroken upon learning of her engagement to another man. Turning misery into motivation, Tom recharges his passion for architecture and gets the rest of his life in order. After many failed interviews, Tom keeps his head up and walks into another waiting room where he meets a girl that catches his attention, her name is Autumn.
(500) Days of Summer is a story that explores the ups and downs of finding love as well as the importance of following one’s dreams. The realistic tone of the film makes it stand out from other romantic comedies, even though this story has plenty of humorous moments that break up the drama. The historical flat line of the romantic film is commonly and tediously simplistic. However, (500) Days of Summer and its unique style draws attention to the genre in new ways. This film’s nonlinear, brutally honest, and humorous approach would not be as impacting if it were not for the standardization of romantic comedies that created a commonly used set of narrative tropes (boy meets girl – boy loses girl – boy wins girl back with elaborate gesture). (500) Days of Summer makes a clear break from the mold.
Early in the film a narrator even tells us “this is not a love story,” but we quickly learn that while it may not be a traditional love story it is certainly a story about realistic love. By “this is not a love story” the filmmakers likely mean that this is not a standard Hollywood love story, meaning that there will be a sense of realism absent from much of the genre. The realism in (500) Days of Summer is seen in the way the narrative plays out, bouncing through time between positive and negative situations. This is how our memory often works when we look back at life. This non-traditional storytelling rings true, ultimately adding realism to a genre that is usually full of fantasy. The film’s deep expressivity comes through as we hear about Tom falling in love as well as fearing the loss of that love.
With the unpredictable narrative, an important scene that breaks from the story to speak directly to the audience is worth noting. During the peak of Tom’s despair, we see the film’s characters speaking directly to the audience in a shot that looks like a one-on-one interview between character and audience. Paul, as the sultan of truth, tells the audience that his dream girl may have different hair, large breasts, and be more interested in sports, but he prefers his girlfriend because she is real. The shot holds for several moments to let Paul’s wise insight linger in the air. Tom is speechless as Paul’s wise observation sinks in.
The beginning of this film sets us up to expect the worst, however, by the end of the film every viewer should be smiling. Our expectations are subverted just as this film challenges the genre of which it is a part. Unlike most Hollywood romance tales, (500) Days of Summer takes a more natural path to the happy ending. The film acknowledges the ups and downs that come with a journey towards love and finding one’s way in life. More importantly, the film suggests that the true key to happiness (and finding love) is to establish your own life first. In order to find our Autumn, we must first gain the courage to fearlessly step out into the world alone.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. His new book, From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros., will be out in October.