In Defense of 500 Days of Summer29 August 2016
Is it pretentious? Yes, but for good reason.
500 Days of Summer: a controversial film. Some people love it, whilst others hate it. Arguments against this film include that it is overly pretentious and contains characters that are, for the majority, unlikeable, Don’t get me wrong, I can totally see how people could read the film this way.
But consider this: 500 Days of Summer is purposefully pretentious. The characters are unlikeable for a reason. Tom, the lead character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is not a cool guy. He’s highly unlikeable to be honest and the pretentiousness of the entire movie is supposed to reflect his conceited and self-indulgent nature. 500 Days of Summer explores and satirises the overly romanticised character that longs after the perfect love interest that Summer so blatantly argues “doesn’t exist”.
I think a lot of the hate surrounding 500 Days of Summer comes from the way people view it. And I’m not trying to be that annoying person telling you how you should watch a movie but this is a film that can only be understood if you watch it from the perspective that it was created with. If you go in expecting a romantic comedy that’s slightly off-beat with a sympathetic main character, then you’re not going to fully understand this movie and you probably won’t like it. But if you watch it as a satirical film that explores the main character’s problematic outlook on relationships then I think you will find that you can at least appreciate it’s merit as a cleverly written and constructed film.
A Movie Doesn’t Need A Likeable Lead To Be Good
Joseph Gordon-Levitt said in an interview that “I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is”. His character, Tom, is self-pitying and conceited, which is where I think a lot of the hate for this film stems from.
People are so used to seeing a film in which the main character is the hero that when a main character is unlikeable, people are quick to dislike the movie as a whole. But what is so great about 500 Days of Summer is that it turns this typical film stereotype on its head to satirise the idea of people, like Tom, who project their own idea of the perfect romantic partner onto certain people.
I think this scene epitomises the whole point of the film. Tom and Summer are at a bar where Tom flippantly criticises girls who have tattoos and carry dogs around as he wonders “who okayed this”. Because women need someone’s approval before they get dressed in the morning apparently.
The point is that his behaviour is blatantly chauvinistic throughout scene, which clearly frustrates Summer as she utters that “some people like” all of the things that Tom disapproves of. Her distanced behaviour indicates that she is uncomfortable with Tom’s actions, just as the viewer is.
Then there’s the scene where Tom goes on a date with Allison after he and Summer break up. She is a nice girl who was looking to go out for a pleasant evening but instead gets dumped with Tom’s constant complaining and pining over Summer. Allison quickly points out that Summer clearly said she didn’t want a relationship and that Tom has not right to be angry at her. As the evening ends in shambles, a drunk Tom then shouts “you look nothing like Summer” at Allison as she leaves.
Clearly Tom is not intended to be a likeable character. But Gordon-Levitt portrays him in such a realistic way that you do initially take Tom seriously. The acting in this film is hyper-realistic which is significant because everyone has met somebody like Tom, or watched a movie where the main character is exactly like him but is praised for his actions. That’s the point!
Tom doesn’t need to be an endearing character for 500 Days of Summer to be a good movie. In fact, it thrives on the fact that he’s a total prick. 500 Days of Summer introduces the audience to this character who seems perfectly nice and then pulls the rug out from under them by showing his off-putting tendencies to idealise people and situations. It is stark in its realism and you automatically dislike Tom because you would dislike this guy in real life. And I think by not liking Tom, people automatically jump to conclusion that they don’t like the movie either. But an unlikeable character does not mean the movie as a whole is bad.
A satirical critique of classic film tropes
Once you realise that you kind of hate Tom, it’s natural that you’ll begin to criticise everything he does and likes. A huge part of his character revolves around the music that he listens to, which is mostly alternative indie-rock. In fact, the first thing that makes Tom believe he is in love with Summer is their shared love of The Smiths. And from that one interaction he projects all of his idealisations onto her. This is a common trope in many much-loved indie films. Juno is a highly regarded indie film that utilises this idea as Mark, played by Jason Batemen, connects with Ellen Page’s character Juno because of their shared love for punk rock and horror movies. The two meet because Mark and his wife Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) are planning on adopting Juno’s baby. Mark then severely misjudges his relationship with Juno as well as her reaction to the fact that he plans on leaving Vanessa. Whilst Juno definitely doesn’t show Mark’s actions in a positive light, the audience does initially view him in this way because of his affiliation with cool alternative music, leading them to sympathise in some way with his inner battle between following his dreams or his supposed duty.
Where Mark’s fixation with punk rock music in Juno presents him as a cool character and someone that Juno initially thinks of positively, 500 Days of Summer shows from the outset how liking alternative bands in a world of suburban families and greeting card creators does not make someone cool. It certainly doesn’t allow for them to assume things about their relationship or idealise other characters based solely on their interaction regarding some vaguely alternative band.
Music is used in 500 Days of Summer to ironically reflect on Tom’s overly-pretentious nature. This ironic use of music is clever because it’s purposeful in the way that it satirises the use of music in films like Juno, where it initially works to establish a character as a “cool” or “alternative”.
There is a scene in the film were Tom literally tries to lure Summer in by playing The Smiths aloud at work. He could have easily played the song ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ as it is the song he and Summer previously bonded over but instead he plays ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’. This is an extremely clever choice of song as it expresses the idea that Tom has idealised and constructed his idea of Summer after their single interaction regarding The Smiths, and also conveys his self-indulgent nature through the lyrics “please, please, please, let me get what I want. Lord knows it would be the first time”.
The cinematography in 500 Days of Summer is objectively beautiful but it also plays an important role in expressing the main idea of the film. The whole film is washed in sepia-tones that scream pretentious indie film. Like the soundtrack, the cinematography of the film is meant to highlight the often-conceited nature of indie films and romantic comedies.
One of my favourite moments in the film is when the screen splits to show Tom’s reality in comparison to his expectations. This is a scene where cinematic techniques are used to cleverly emphasise an important theme by highlighting the way that Tom idealises everything Summer does and then throws a tantrum at work afterwards because things didn’t go the way he expected them to. If this were most other movies, this would be the part where Summer realises she still has feelings for Tom and then they end up living happily ever after. You know how it goes.
For some reason the first movie that came to mind when thinking about this was Notting Hill. Hugh Grant’s character meets a famous actress played by Julia Roberts and then he falls in love with her, but she doesn’t really like him in a romantic way until later on when she realises she was actually in love with him the whole time. What 500 Days of Summer does is it takes this kind of movie and makes you think about it in terms of the main character’s motivations and actions. It forces the audience to see the inherent self-involvement of both Tom and Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill. Except, of course, Hugh Grant gets the girl in the end so it all seems normal. The realness of the characters in 500 Days of Summer is exacerbated when the screen splits to show Tom’s expectations compared with his reality in a way that cleverly satirises all romantic comedies and indie films alike.
500 Days of Summer is such a great movie because it utilises acting, cinematography and music in a cohesive way to enhance its critique of indie films and romantic comedies, and the selfish nature of many characters in these kinds of films. It provides an interesting and unique insight into the way people view relationships and love, and how so many people in films and real life idealise people and relationships. In order to see and appreciate the film for what it is, people need to look past the idea that a protagonist is likeable or that they will get the happy ending they deserve.