(500) Days Of Summer utilizes an unconventional, non-linear timeline to portray the short-lived romance between the film’s two main characters, Tom Hansen and Summer Finn. Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star in the offbeat romantic comedy, which first captured the hearts of audiences over a decade ago when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. It was director Mark Webb’s directorial debut—and it stole the show. Through a total of around 40 scenes that correspond with different days of Tom and Summer’s relationship, (500) Days Of Summer presents a non-linear, non-traditional, non-love story to the audience.
2019 marked the 10 year anniversary of the film, and audience interpretations of the meaning behind the movie and what it’s attempting to convey have varied greatly over the years. What makes the film so interesting — and, at times, controversial — is how it both does and does not adhere to certain norms of the traditional rom-com. A common misinterpretation of the film is that it romanticizes Summer by using the “manic pixie dream girl” trope — whereby the whimsical female character serves as a catalyst for the male character’s growth. That’s one way to look at the film, but another, arguably more accurate interpretation, is that Webb’s film is actually meant to be seen as a critic of these kinds of romantic comedy clichés.
The inability to define the film under the norms of the Romantic Comedy genre, along with its unconventional style of storytelling, has led some viewers to coin (500) Days Of Summer as the Fight Club of the rom-com world. Like that film, Webb’s narrative doesn’t follow the linear format audiences are used to seeing. But, the film does follow the basic structure of the romantic comedy screenplay in its own quirky way. Rather than one continuous 3-act screenplay, it’s broken into several non-linear sequences that do, nonetheless, abide by the traditional 3-act structure. And each sequence includes the plot points required for this structure to work. Here’s how the narrative’s timeline unfolds, why it was done this way, and how it informs the message behind the film.
Starting with the first sequence, the film introduces the two main protagonists and delivers the first inciting incident — when the audience learns that Tom has always felt as though he will never be truly happy until he meets “the one.'” Summer, on the other hand, feels the opposite. This is another example of how the film adheres to the rules of the genre, by following the “opposites attract” formula. Of course, ultimately, (500) Days Of Summer is anything but formulaic, as it also flips the script in terms of the cliché gender roles often depicted in other films of the genre.
After a brief narrative prologue that introduces the characters, informing viewers that “this is not a love story,” the film opens in May, on day 488, nearly 500 days after Tom meets Summer. They are sitting on a park bench, where she is notably wearing an engagement ring. This is the first trick of the film, and it sets up the underlying theme of false perception and misunderstandings that occur throughout the story. From there, the movie cuts to the next scene — January 8th of the previous year, aka Day 1. This is when, glancing out the window of his board room meeting, Tom sees Summer for the first time. The next time Tom is shown, it’s day 290, and his younger yet wiser sister is listening to him painfully retell the story of his breakup with Summer at the Dinner. And this is how the narrative progresses, jumping back and forth in time, (500) Days Of Summer cleverly captures the rise and fall of Tom and Summer’s whirlwind romance scene-by-scene.
A little over a month after Tom meets Summer, they bond over a night of Karaoke. That same night, Summer tells Tom and his friends that she doesn’t believe in love — or relationships, for that matter. By the end of the night, it seems like the two may turn out to be just friends rather than anything romantic — it’s now Day 28. The following Monday, the couple has their first kiss in the copy room at work. This copy room kiss is followed by two important juxtaposed scenes of the couples’ trips to IKEA together. There are a few interesting things going on here that show how telling the story with this non-linear timeline works to reveal the true meaning behind the film. In the first IKEA scene, on Day 282, Tom tries to make Summer laugh by playing house, but Summer doesn’t reciprocate. The next scene jumps back to Day 34, also at IKEA. This scene serves to let the audience in on the “our sinks are broken” inside joke from the previous scene, but there’s another reason Webb places these two scenes back to back at this point in the movie’s love story.
By choosing to show the unhappy IKEA scene before the happy one reveals an important element of Tom’s character, and sets up a recurring theme in the film. Tom is attempting to relive the best moments of their time together. He idealizes a handful of moments from the past and chooses to see this relationship through rose-colored glasses, rather than living in the present moment — with Summer. Ultimately, this plays a major role in the couple’s doom, and it’s part of what makes it so painfully obvious that the two aren’t right for each other. By living in the past, Tom can’t see that things have changed right before his eyes. Summer is no longer happy. In the last scene, Tom gets an email from Summer. “I hope this means you’re ready to be friends,” it says — it’s now Day 302.
On Day 109, Summer lets Tom in by sharing things with Tom that she’s never shared with anyone else before. Tom pretends to be fine with not labeling his relationship with Summer. Meanwhile, he secretly considers them a couple. Again, Tom continues to remain in denial while Summer remains open about her feelings and intentions. She doesn’t want a relationship. Of course, this doesn’t imply that Summer has done nothing wrong here, or that she’s completely free from any blame for how things work out. Like many misunderstandings in all types of relationships, the fault often lies – at least in part – with both parties. This is part of what makes (500) Days of Summer a more realistic view of romance, dating, and love in the modern world than many of its counterparts in the genre.
One of the major downfalls of Tom’s and Summer’s relationship, aside from the fact that they simply want different things, is hinted at during one of the very first scenes in the film. Tom’s misinterpretation of The Graduate tells the audience everything they need to know about his character – so it’s appropriate that the beginning of the end of his relationship with Summer happens after the couple goes to see the movie on Day 290. Summer leaves the theater distraught, having viewed the film as a tragedy. Meanwhile, Tom still considers it romantic and leaves feeling confused.
It’s this scene that marks the beginning of the end, and the breakup talk comes later that day over dinner at the diner. In addition to offering character development, The Graduate scene also perfectly parallels with how Webb’s film has been experienced by audiences over the years, as (500) Days Of Summer continues to be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the individual viewer’s perspective. Given how the film uses The Graduate to convey how stories — and real-life relationships, for that matter — are never truly one-dimensional or one-sided, perhaps it’s fair to assume that this is exactly the result that Webb intended for his film in the first place.
After a fair amount of wallowing, Tom begins to move on, which is first depicted via a movie montage of Tom getting his life together. This roughly covers Days 456-479. But, it isn’t until he meets someone new that Tom really is over Summer. At his final interview for a new job at an architecture firm, Tom meets Autumn, who is interviewing for the same job as him. It’s quite the meet-cute — and the narrative comes full circle on Day 500, making it arguably a perfect plot structure. Of course, there’s still always going to be more than one way to interpret the story that unfolds in (500) Days of Summer. As audiences continue to disagree over which character is the victim and which is the villain, Zooey Deschanel’s Summer or Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom, the answer might just lie in Webb’s use of the non-linear timeline. As a story that is ultimately about navigating the complicated world of human relationships — and the misunderstandings that happen along the way — it seems appropriate that people are still debating the true meaning and message behind the film today.