The following reveals essential plot points, so beware…
We’ve taken the non-linear path through romantic plotlines before, and it’s a useful trick, but what makes it work here is the narrative caveat we’re told at the beginning: this is not a love story. Sure, it sounds like Lemony Snicket. But if you want to enjoy (500) Days of Summer, you must believe it. Otherwise, you’ll think something is missing, and if it really were a love story, you’d be right.
Love stories tend to follow a particular pattern. We’re introduced to guy and girl, both living in their separate worlds until those worlds collide and make a spark. We call this the “meet-cute.” We get to know them, both together and apart. Even if they hate each other, we know that the spark is there and they’ll eventually land in each other’s arms, even if they fall out later. That’s a love story, and that’s what love stories do.
This film plays by a slightly different set of rules.
We meet Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) just after a painful split with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). He vows to get her back, and off the story runs through the shuffled jumble of their early days together. These early moments ooze enough charm and whimsy to make you want to root for these two, but as the tale unwinds, it’s clear Tom is more invested than Summer. For inexplicable reasons, she starts to lose interest.
The movie does something here that, if you never paid attention to the narrator’s warning at the beginning, looks like a serious flaw: there is nothing revelatory or profound about the reason Summer decides to split. In fact, by this time, we still know next to nothing about her.
Some of the harsher criticism levied against the film argues that Summer is merely an underdeveloped iteration of the whimsical love interest–the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Were this a love story, that would be true, but this story really belongs to Tom. A love story would belong to them both, but we see this story through Tom’s eyes. We see Summer as he sees her. If we begin to think halfway through the film that Summer is underdeveloped, it’s because she is. To Tom, she’s never her own person. It’s all about him.
Consider the moment when Summer shares a portion of her life with Tom that she’s never shared with anyone. We never get to hear what it is. Instead, the narrator intrudes to tell us that this was the night everything changed for, who? Tom.
Back to the break up. Summer’s had her fun, or so it would appear, and thinks they should see other people. Tom is crushed. Of course she still wants to be friends, and he just resents it. He clings to his memory of her like a security blanket. In his world, she has become everything that gives life meaning, and he refuses to move on. Until Summer forces him to move on. When they meet again after some time apart, Tom learns that the wistful Summer is engaged to another man.
Recall when Tom and Summer sit at a bar and a drunk dude slides over to drop a bad pick-up line. Upon rejection, he casts a mean glare at Tom. He can’t believe Summer would rather go for a skinny little man-child over a broad shouldered man’s man, and he says so to everyone within earshot. So Tom decks him. And then Tom gets his butt kicked.
Summer is not impressed, and Tom is hurt. He was defending her honor, he says. “Really?” she says. “Was that for me?”
There’s a facet to their relationship here that we haven’t seen before, something deeper than personal stories shared for the first time, or the euphoria of sex: Tom is still a kid on the inside. He’s begging for a chance to be a man. And Summer knows it. That’s why she wanted out. But, since all of this happens through Tom’s POV, she appears flighty and indecisive because that’s the way he sees her.
After their first night together, Tom gets his own musical number, complete with an animated bird right out of Snow White. He looks into a glass, and sees there the reflection of Han Solo. In there, thinks Tom, is the face of a man. The only problem is that the man in the mirror is Han Solo, not Tom Hansen. That window is his Mirror of Erised.
When we first meet him, we learn that Tom a greeting card writer. There may not be a more apt metaphor—he doesn’t just live the empty narrative of fairy tale sentiment, he actually helps create it. Once his heart is broken and finally begins to heal, something revelatory does happen: Tom takes ownership of himself. He leaves behind the greeting cards and begins to develop his gifts. Slowly, he becomes his own man.
Then, on day 500, the story fumbles the ball with the appearance of Autumn. We can assume that Tom is ready now to embrace his destiny and love a woman for who she really is, not for who he thinks she is. But meeting Autumn only gives us one more meet-cute to salvage whatever sentiments of romance the movie shed over the last hour. It’s as if the movie gods offered up a girl to return the piece of Tom’s heart that Summer had taken away from him.
There’s nothing surprising about Autumn, only that she follows Summer. That wasn’t a trick—you really heard a rimshot. What we needed was an actual ending. Instead we got a smile and wink, and then we were shown the door.