Ten years of (500) Days of Summer

In 2009, this was an anti-rom com that critics loved. Years later, it was reappraised as misogynistic. How does it hold up a decade on?

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(500) Days of Summer is freaking awesome. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfect. I AM IN LOVE.

I tweeted this on 2 September 2009. I wish my taste at 17 years old had been more sophisticated. A decade later, I’m haunted by the evidence that it was not.

A shuffled account of a failed relationship starring aspirational hipsters du jour Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer was a modest box office success, making a tidy $60 million worldwide on its $7.5 million budget. At the time it was received warmly by critics, who praised the film’s “teasing and ingeniously structured presentation of their romance” (the New York Times) and “evergreen” indie soundtrack (the Guardian).

In the ten years since its theatrical release, our understanding of heterosexual relationship dynamics has significantly changed, and (500) Days of Summer has been harshly reappraised as a result. Its protagonist, Tom (Gordon Levitt), has been reassessed as an entitled nice-guy misogynist; Summer (Deschanel) called out as a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl construction. Its screenwriter, Scott Neustadter, opens the film with a vengeful author’s note addressed to the ex-girlfriend who inspired the film (“The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”) Neustadter even penned a bitter personal essay in the Daily Mail as part of the film’s publicity campaign, telling of how writing the script liberated him from his own misery. “The finished film tells it all just as it happened,” he writes, “however embarrassing my puppy-like devotion and however aloof it makes her look.”

Tentatively, I steeled myself for a rewatch.

“Why is it that pretty girls think they can treat people like crap and get away with it?” asks Tom, seemingly unaware that he has ignored Summer’s firm but gentle declaration that in fact, she was never “looking for anything serious”. This is the film’s wounded thesis statement.

I don’t believe a film has to be morally pure to be enjoyed, but an alarm bell rings every time something sexist happens; a black and white montage that quantifies Summer in terms of male attention, statistics about her below-average “average” weight, a scene in which Tom subjects a lovely redheaded literature graduate to hours of heartbroken drivel. Summer is defined solely by her beauty and her emotional opacity (“She loved her long dark hair, and how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing”). We never meet her friends or learn her dreams; she’s an attractive blank slate, perfect for projecting fantasies onto.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt admitted as such in an interview with Playboy in 2012, arguing that Tom “develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl” who he thinks will give his life meaning. “That’s not healthy. That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.” Tom and Summer’s initial meet cute sees them bonding over the Smiths, but as Tom’s teenage sister (a 12-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz) deadpans, “Just because some girl likes the same bizarro crap as you, doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate”. Its hero might be selfish and blinkered, but the film does acknowledge this. I’d forgotten that it anticipates its own critique.

Rewatching the film for the first time in many years is a bizarre experience. Misogynistic flourishes aside, I find the script’s twee pop culture references (Summer Finn’s Spotify playlist includes the Smiths, the Beatles and Belle & Sebastian) and a game in which the duo shout the word “penis” in a public park freshly embarrassing. The curated mixtape soundtrack feels dated.

But there are things that worked on me the first time that still hold up. A song-and-dance set piece soundtrack by the 1979 Hall and Oates single “You Make My Dreams Come True” is joyously goofy; a split-screen montage that shows Tom’s Expectations vs his Reality as he attends a party at Summer’s after they have split up remains relatably sad. I wondered if the infamous scene in which Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel have a romantic day out at IKEA (in my experience, there’s no such thing) would be as mawkish as I remembered. Actually, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel sell it. The pair have genuine chemistry, and Levitt is especially good at registering hurt and disappointment, boyish and charming in a karaoke bar.

Though it styles itself as an anti-rom com (“This is not a love story,” booms the narrator), it’s a fine example of one that tests its central couple’s contrasting romantic worldviews. “It’s love, not Santa Claus,” says Tom; “there’s no such thing as fantasy”. He is the dreamy optimist, she the cynic: it’s a gender-flipped When Harry Met Sally. The non-linear structure adds tension but the film’s feelings towards fate, coincidence and cosmic significance are ultimately hopeful. 

The narrator describes Tom’s view on love as shaped by “a total misreading of the ending of The Graduate”. As newlyweds Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katherine Ross) ride off into the sunset in the back of a yellow school bus, their expressions become ambivalent. Understanding this reference is perhaps key to enjoying (500) Days of Summer. As a movie about the perils of self-deception and misreadings, it’s oddly revealing. In a cultural moment that’s seen romantic comedies neuter their gender politics to appeal to a broader and more progressive audience, there’s an honesty – and a satisfying sense of self-flagellation – in the film’s unresolved, pre-think piece position on men and women.

Simran Hans is a freelance writer for publications including BuzzFeed, The FADER, Little White Lies, Pitchfork and Sight & Sound magazine.