“This is a story of boy meets girl.”
So says the narrator in the opening sequence of (500) Days of Summer; “but you should know up front, this is not a love story”. This could refer to any number of themes within the film, such as gender role-reversal between Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) or the fact that the ideology of ‘love’ in romantic comedies is not adhered to. On the other hand, it could mean that from the beginning of the film, the audience is aware that this is not a classic linear narrative as often found in romantic comedies; it is quite literally not a love story. Instead, those of you who have seen the film will know its non-chronological structure uses each scene as one day in Tom & Summer’s five hundred day long relationship. But is this narrative structure merely a gimmick as some critics have suggested or an innovative choice that refreshes the long-stale romantic comedy genre?
For starters, the characters are quite unconventional in the romcom world. Okay, they’re still young, white and attractive, but that’s Hollywood’s problem. You’ll see very few indie kids/hipsters in a big romantic comedy; there won’t be any mention on The Smiths either, and the lead couple won’t be seen shouting “PENIS!” in a crowded park. Perhaps the ever-growing cult popularity of the film is partially responsible to mainstream taking a bit more notice of alternatives to the norm.
One other thing that (500) Days does differently is that shows the difference between the content of what is told to us in the narration and what is shown onscreen. For instance, very early on in the film, we see a scene between Tom and Summer; they’re sat on a bench, holding hand and smiling at each other with an engagement ring on Summer’s finger. This one shot, along with the evidence that this comes late on in film’s “timeline” connotes the intimacy and the happy ending we’re used to seeing in romcoms. But hang on a second, haven’t we just been told that there is no happy ending for these two? Already, (500) Days is playing with and creating conflict between is shown and told, audience expectations and narrative conventions.
This conflict sustained throughout and also used for comedy value. Take one of the film’s most iconic scenes; after the couple have sex for the first time Day 34, Tom walks to work, soundtracked by Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”, as passers-by begin a dance number. There’s lip-syncing, cheesy dance moves, Disney birds and a Han Solo cameo; it’s what every guy (would like to) experience after sex with the girl of their dreams. Tom finally reaches work, enters the lift just as the doors close, and when they open again an intertitle transports us to Day 300, giving us a wonderful jump cut to a downbeat, bedraggled, post-breakup Tom shuffling out of that same lift. This has a comedic effect as Tom has gone from overwhelmingly happy to depressed in a short space of time, swung from one emotional extreme to the other; but also creates tradegy and sympathy for Tom. Anyone can relate to that just-dumped feeling. By using intertitles, to pass the time quickly and to compare & contrast, the film undermines Tom’s fantasy of love as fleeting. The notion of everlasting love, which romantic comedies thrive on, has been undermined.
And this is not the only way that the film’s structure undermines Tom’s view of love (gained from a total misreading of The Graduate). The narrator tells us toward the beginning of the film that “most days of the year are unremarkable… most days have no impact on the course of a life”; but because the film is cut up into segments of days, it exaggerates how each day does in fact have an impact on the overall course of the characters’ romance and lives. The audience has more awareness of Tom and his actions than Tom himself. Often this invokes dramatic irony, making Tom’s viewpoint within the film redundant since, unlike the audience, he is not aware of the causality between the different narrative days. For instance, early in the film on Day 154, a montage of images of Summer is narrated by Tom pointing out the different aspects of Summer he loves; “I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love how she licks her lips before she talks. I love her heart-shaped birthmark on her neck. I love it when she sleeps” and declaring he loves her. Later in the film, on Day 32, the same montage is repeated, except now Tom hates all these things about Summer he saw positively before (“I HATE THIS SONG!”). As the character of Rachel, Tom’s little sister and probably the wisest person in the film, suggests to Tom, once their romance is over he becomes an unreliable narrator, remembering only the good things, and nothing he doesn’t want to. Perhaps this is the purpose behind the film’s narrative structure; to show the ambiguity and absurdity of the love story through informing the audience moreso than the main characters.
As well as changing the audiences’ ideas of the love ‘story’, (500) Days challenges critics too. One complaint from those who enjoy romcoms is that critics of the genre place too much emphasis and focus on the memorable happy ending, with the rest of the narrative disappearing from critical discussion, especially of the middle section. By placing the events of Tom & Summer’s romance in non-linear structure, the film in fact places importance of the oft-forgotten middle section. Unlike conventional linear films, the audience has to actively link the events in the middle of the film and organise them into a linear sequence within their own minds in order to create the overall story; making some sense of what they’re seeing on screen. A prime example of this is the reappearance of Day 488 at the end of the film. Beforehand, this had alluded to the stereotypical ‘romcom happy ending’ for the couple. It not until this scene is shown again that the true interpretation of the ending and the overall story can be pieced together; we’ve already been told Summer is engaged to someone other than Tom, a short while after the two broke up. When you look at Day 488 for a second time, you begin to notice the mise-en-scene of the autumnal setting; the grey clouds and the character’s black outfits suggests an unhappy ending, if we believe the standard romcom rules.
Yet, in some ways (500) Days is still your typical love ‘story’. I would argue that it can only try to break from the normal narrative structure because the conventions, cliches and tropes of romantic comedies as well as classic linear romances has been so thoroughly repeated, so the audience already has pre-conceived assumptions and expectations. The narrative structure of romantic comedies have been described as tired and predictable, widely depicted as slavish and formulaic, adhering to well-worn and obvious conventions. It’s the simple equation of “boy meets girl; boy and girl face obstacles in their union; boy and girl conquer obstacles to find true love”; it’s essentially Romeo & Juliet… without the suicidal ending. Let’s not forget that the narrator reminds us “this is not a story of boy meets girl” showing the film’s awareness of such narrative conventions through the use of three simple words. However, it is only because an audience is to this familiar narrative structure, and furthermore the linear narrative structure in most films, that (500) Days of Summer can subvert this. Like another alt-romantic comedy of recent years, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, it eschews the preoccupations of the rom-com even while being understood as belonging to the genre, and this can mostly be accredited to its non-linear narrative structure.
So is (500) Days gimmicky? Toby Young, critic and source writer of another conventional/unconventional romcom in How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, commented that “taking the best bits from other movies and rearranging them in a non-linear sequence does not make for an original film”. Either way, (500) Days of Summer has prompted questions of the love ‘story’ and we can only look at films in the future to see if it will reinvigorate the genre.