Joel Danilewitz: What we can learn from ‘(500) Days of Summer’

Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 5:46pm

In 2009, Marc Webb’s directorial debut “(500) Days of Summer” was released to high acclaim. The film, told in a non-linear arc, guides us through the eyes of Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a hopeless romantic who becomes infatuated with Summer Finn, portrayed by Zooey Deschanel. When the film was released, it received high praise from both critics and audiences, with famed critic Roger Ebert giving it a flawless review and applauding it as “a delightful comedy, alive with invention.”

In the intervening years, the movie has undergone several autopsies. The current zeitgeist has made great strides toward creating films that depict characters, specifically those in marginalized roles, with more attentiveness to fleshing out their identity and not succumbing to pernicious stereotypes. With such motions toward fairness in representation, we can easily reexamine films that may have put women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community squarely in roles that denigrate their identities. Triangulating off of these specific groups, “(500) Days of Summer” is a deeply negligent and grossly misogynistic take on modern romance, one that obfuscates such a fact with its quirky and hipster aesthetic.

From the onset, we barely know anything about the titular character except what Hansen leads us to believe. We’re made aware of her parent’s divorce, which is used as a proxy to spurn her antipathy toward relationships. Yet that background information is essentially harnessed as a plot device for Hansen to grow from rather than as actual insight into her as a person. Finn fits perfectly into the mold of manic pixie dream girl, except that her disposition is so static (no thanks to the way Hansen myopically conveys her) that it would be more appropriate to just call her a “chill pixie dream girl.” In essence, she is a smattering of tropes that neatly plays into the fantasy of an emotionally immature, Smith-loving involuntary celibate, which is virtually Hansen’s character.

Finn rejects Hansen as more than a hookup multiple times from the beginning of the movie, explaining, “this is fun” more than once. Each time this happens, he goes into violent tirades to his equally sexist friends, who homophobically conjecture the reason she doesn’t want a relationship is because she is a lesbian. Yet, we are expected to sympathize with his sensitive nature (I mean, he works at a greeting card company, right?), even though he uses his sensitivity as a guise for the toxic way he tries to gaslight Finn.

It would be easier to make a less critical reevaluation of such a movie if, while watching it, we viewed Finn as the protagonist and Hansen as the antagonist. Even Gordon-Levitt, an outspoken feminist, has made attempts to do so. Still, co-writer Scott Neustadter admitted the film was based off a prior relationship, rendering the plot even more masturbatory. And regrettably, the director peddled the idea that Finn was a stock character by categorizing her as “the one” at the time of its release.

Yet to disregard this film as an abysmal piece of anti-feminist garbage (which it arguably still is), would be remiss in taking the inadvertent lessons it has presented.

From a representational point of view, the film’s characters are all white, with people of color being very much at its margins (and, at certain points, mocked). Its overwhelming whiteness is a potent reminder of the work filmmakers must put into creating a diverse cast. Furthermore, the lack of sensitivity toward Finn’s character may have been fixed with a female director at the helm of the movie. Yet in 2009, women only accounted for 7 percent of directors for the top 250 grossing films of that year. In 2017, they still only comprise 11 percent of directors, exhibiting the meager attempts made by Hollywood to put women in the director’s chair. However, when there is at least one female director or writer, almost half of all major roles in a film are women, an important insight into how women directors improve the overall representation of a film.

On a thematic level, “(500) Days of Summer” also allows the viewer to consider how our own expectations can cloud judgement much like it does for Hansen. We’re all guilty of falling for people, and equally so for those who don’t love us back. But this film demonstrates the way expectation can seep into reality and ultimately damage ourselves. Hansen is constantly projecting his ideal girlfriend onto Finn, preventing us from seeing her as a human being. Though pushed to extremes, loving someone as an abstraction rather than a person is a common consequence of infatuation and crushes.

In the penultimate moments of the film, Hansen goes to a rooftop party that Finn invites him to as a gesture of friendship. The scene parses the screen into two halves, with one presenting “Expectation” and the other presenting “Reality.” In “Expectation,” the party ends with Hansen and Finn hooking up again. In “Reality,” Finn reveals to her friends at the party that she is engaged, incensing Hansen and yielding a bout of depression.

We all have expectations about love and people. Whether it’s because we’ve been taught to view people as objects of affection by movies like “(500) Days of Summer” and the litany of other problematic romantic comedies, or because we get trapped in our own thoughts, it isn’t a crime to sometimes allow expectation to supersede reality. But we must learn to distill the two, especially when it comes to people we like. Viewing someone as a whole and not an idea grants them more humanity and us more understanding when things don’t end up working out. We can go onto future relationships with more healthy attitudes and hopefully attempt to better understand the other person involved. In this sense, “(500) Days of Summer” is its most successful when we see Hansen as the one who brought about his own tumbling spiral, and not Finn.

As romantic comedies become increasingly self-aware, we can use the ones we now see as antiquated to understand how to make better films, have more representation and work on cultivating healthy relationships.

Joel Danilewitz is an LSA sophomore and can be reached at joeldan@umich.edu.