“This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front: This is not a love story.”
So warns the omniscient narrator of (500) Days of Summer. And whether or not that disclaimer is accurate has everything to do with the two very different points of view held by this little indie movie’s main characters, Tom and Summer.
Tom Hanson is a failed architect turned greeting card writer who’s in love with love, destiny and fate. Accordingly, Tom’s hope of finding The One propels him on his search for a soul mate.
Summer Finn is sassy, mysterious and unpredictable. Men’s heads swivel when she walks into a room. Or, in Tom’s case, when she lands in a nearby cubicle at work.
Instinctively suspecting she’ll mess with his heart, Tom talks himself out of falling for Summer’s considerable charms—for about two minutes. Because it’s at about the two-minute mark that he learns she too is a fan of The Smiths.
Thwack! goes Cupid’s bow. Thunk! goes the arrow as it finds Tom’s warm, soft heart.
But there’s a rub. And it’s a big one. Summer doesn’t believe in love. Or destiny. Or fate. Or soul mates. Her parents’ divorce when she was an adolescent, the narrator informs us, inoculated her against all that mushy-gushy stuff. “There’s no such thing as love,” she tells Tom. “It’s fantasy.”
Which is why, despite the fact that Tom falls utterly in love with Summer, the 500 days of their relationship—relayed to us in a nonlinear manner, beginning forward and from the end backward—may not, in fact, turn out to be a love story after all.
(500) Days of Summer wrestles, albeit playfully, with the question of what it means to be in a real, committed relationship. As infatuation seizes Tom and as Summer begins to reciprocate (it seems), he’s initially content to concede to Summer’s desire not to label what’s happening between them. Eventually, though, Tom wants to know if their relationship really means anything to her. Even though she’s warned him against wanting more or longing for lasting commitment, that’s exactly where Tom’s heart goes, arguably illustrating the fact that love is serious business and that our hearts aren’t really designed for casual or recreational affection (or sex, for that matter, a subject we’ll deal with a bit more as this review moves along).
As Tom rides the roller coaster of life with Summer, well-meaning friends try their best to counsel him through the ups and inevitable downs. Among these people is his little sister Chloe, who’s perhaps 11 or 12, a co-worker named McKenzie, and Tom’s lifelong best friend, Paul. Their counsel isn’t always precisely helpful, but they should still be credited for doing their best to try to help Tom navigate the mysteries of why things work—or don’t—when it comes to romance. One healthy observation Paul makes lends perspective to the divide between fantasy and reality: He says of his significant other, “Robin’s better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.”
Summer encourages Tom to pursue his architecture dreams again, even though Tom has mostly given them up. He eventually does just that, throwing himself into his desire to become an architect in an attempt to channel his disappointment about how things go with Summer.
In a meltdown at work provoked by his deteriorating connection with Summer, Tom rightly identifies movies, music and greeting cards as significant cultural influences that shape our expectations about romance.
[Spoiler Warning] In a twist near the end, Summer suddenly marries someone else. Tom is devastated, but a poignant “closure” conversation between them involves Summer telling Tom that he was the one who helped her to believe that love was actually possible. His earnest, open and hopeful nature has ultimately influenced Summer, even if she wasn’t able to love him the way he loved her.
The intrinsically spiritual subjects of fate and destiny are at the center of the film’s exploration of modern romance. Tom’s boss mentions the fact that Tom has suffered a “loss of faith.” Song lyrics include the phrase “original sin.”
Tom briefly interacts with a group of greeting card writers who work in the “Religious and Sympathy” division, and there’s a joking reference to Jesus’ mother, Mary. Someone is said to have “Jesus’ abs.”
Tom and Summer’s growing friendship quickly leads to sexual involvement. Before their first such encounter, Summer tells Tom, “I’m not really looking for anything serious, is that OK?” Tom assures her that it is, then goes in the bathroom to try to convince himself of the same thing (talking to himself in the mirror). When he comes out, we see Summer sprawled on the bed and glimpse the backside of one bare shoulder (a camera shot that pays homage to a similar image in The Graduate, a film that Tom mentions several times as one of the most influential films of his adolescence).
Tom and Summer visit the “Adults Only” section of a video store, rent a pornographic film and then try to imitate one of the scenes in the shower. (We don’t see anything explicit in the film or between Tom and Summer; we glimpse a hand or two above the shower curtain before they pull it down and the camera cuts away.) During a fight regarding whether they’re a couple or not, Tom derisively says that they’re just “shower sex friends.” A bit further on, they go to another pornographic movie at a theater.
At an IKEA store, Tom and Summer snuggle suggestively on a display bed and begin kissing when they notice that there’s another family (with a couple of children) watching them. At a public park (with children around), Tom and Summer take turns yelling “penis” ever more loudly.
Card-writing co-workers trying to brainstorm new holidays come up with one for lesbian mothers. While drunk, McKenzie asks Summer if she’s got a boyfriend; when she says no, he asks if she’s a lesbian. Later we learn that one of her exes was, in fact, a woman. Another of Tom’s friends quizzes him, using crude sexual descriptions, about what Tom and Summer have and haven’t done together.
A woman wears a low-cut dress sans bra.
Tom clocks a man in a bar who’s aggressively hitting on Summer and belittling him. The man smacks him back and the screen fades to black, indicating that Tom was knocked out. Elsewhere, Tom processes his emotional pain by picking up three or four dinner plates and robotically smashing them on the countertop. Reference is made to Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols stabbing his girlfriend. Later, Tom draws a sketch of a large, bloody knife stabbing Summer (in a scene that’s played for humor).
One f-word and about 15 s-words. Characters take Jesus’ name in vain twice, and “g-d–n” is uttered once. We hear about a dozen other vulgarities (including “b–ch,” “h—” and “a–“). And there’s one crude reference each to male and female anatomy.
Summer, Tom and McKenzie go to a bar for karaoke night. Summer and Tom drink shots and beer, and McKenzie gets very, very drunk. (He practically has to be carried to a waiting cab.) Later, Tom offhandedly says he’s not intoxicated enough to sing, whereupon Summer enthusiastically waves the waiter to their table; the next scene pictures a quite inebriated Tom warbling away at the mic. In a similar scene, Tom gets exceedingly drunk at the same karaoke bar in a failed attempt to drown his sorrows. When he’s breaking the aforementioned plates, Tom’s little sister suggests vodka to calm him down. We also see Tom with a bottle of whiskey at one of his lowest points.
In his depression following the end of his relationship with Summer, Tom spends day after day at home. Half-eaten Twinkies, an aspirin bottle and alcohol containers are strewn haphazardly about his apartment.
Tom takes a meanspirited shot at McKenzie’s nonexistent love life. A story is told about the last time McKenzie went to a bar for karaoke night, an outing that concluded with him vomiting and trying to set the place on fire.
The tweenage Rachel makes a joke about PMS.
I made my first profession of “love” when I was 7 years old. Sounds crazy, I know. But I thought it was the real thing. Her name was Wendy, a girl from my elementary school who lived just a few blocks away. And so one day I mustered my courage, walked to her house, rang the bell and promptly confessed, “I love you.”
Her nonchalant response: “Adam, I’ve only been in love twice. I don’t think you love me.” It was my first, but not my last, heartrending brush with unrequited affection.
Which brings us in a roundabout way to (500) Days of Summer.
Anyone who has ever traversed the dizzying heights of euphoric infatuation to the abject despondency that settles in after rejection will empathize with Tom Hanson’s plight. The film captures the raw wound of rejection as deftly as anything I’ve seen in a long time. But it also illustrates our culture’s deep confusion when it comes to love, sex, intimacy and commitment.
Shortly after Tom tells Summer that he likes her, she reciprocates, and they quickly end up in bed together. Sex, then, is simply an assumed step in the process of “getting to know each other” (a process aided, for the record, by liberal amounts of alcohol in this story). In fact, Tom and Summer cross this bridge long before Summer allows him into the inner sanctum of her apartment and begins to share some things she’s never told anyone.
In this sense, (500) Days of Summer reinforces the damaging idea that sexual intimacy early in a relationship is normal and expected—certainly not something we should make too big a deal about. If things don’t work out, well, too bad, but at least we had some “fun” while we were at it. This, we’re supposed to think, is simply the way things are.
And yet … Tom is devastated. And rightly so. He’s given Summer everything—emotionally and physically—and been left with nothing. He longs for something better, something concrete, something real: a love that is true. And that’s something Summer is unable to give him, even though she readily offers her body as a substitute for a time.
The end result is nothing short of a disaster.
A wedding between two minor characters late in the film subtly underscores what it is that Tom pines for: a permanent commitment. Until he finds it, though, we’re left with the feeling that he’ll keep offering his body and soul to each successive person he falls for. That’s an approach liable to yield more and more heartache for him—and for anyone influenced by his (and Summer’s) tragically confused example of what it means to have sex and make romance.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.