Subverting the Romantic Comedy in '(500) Days of Summer'

Updated on July 18, 2018

The ‘boy-meets-girl’ story has been a recurring narrative within the romantic comedy genre. The concept is essentially a meta-narrative widely known by general film viewers and fans of the genre alike and is an idealistic view of finding romance that the hopeless romantics out there wish to seek within their own reality. However, in some modern depictions, this narrative concept has been subverted from a love story into a more skeptical story about love. This article will analyze how (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) is a prime example of this modern subversion, and explain how the ‘boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-in-the-end' formula is transformed into a 'boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-meets-another-girl-in-the-end’ narrative.

In the exposition of the film, the spectator is provided one key narrative convention of the rom-com genre; the ‘boy-meets-girl’ master narrative. The film begins with a non-diegetic voice-over providing emotional background context for both the male protagonist Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his love interest Summer (Zooey Deschanel). This voice over is used to parallel the mise-en-scene of the two lovers as children. This is a self-aware and very literal depiction of the ‘boy-meets-girl’ story. The protagonist Tom is portrayed as the conventional romantic comedy protagonist. Leger Grindon explains that: ‘[t]he protagonist is emotionally inadequate until she or he finds the proper mate and becomes a more complete human being.’ The voice over states that Tom believes that he will never truly be happy until he meets ‘the one’ and that this belief was influenced by ‘sad British pop music’ and ‘a total misreading of the movie The Graduate’. Betty Kaklandiou observes that at first it seems that ‘[t]he story will follow decades of cinematic history and centuries of theatrical and literary origins.’ This conventional tone soon changes as the narrator states to the audience that; ‘This is a story of boy-meets-girl, but you should know up front… this is not a love story.’

In many ways, the tone of the film does seem more skeptical over ideas of love, as this is conventional of the ‘grotesque and ambivalent cycle’ of the rom-com genre. Critic Peter Travers points out that; ‘(500) Days is otherwise a different kind of love story: an honest one that takes a piece out of you.’ The film depicts an even amount of realistically depressing moments of a failing relationship, as well as joyfully romanticized fantasies of falling in love with ‘the one’. An example of this level ratio of joy/ depression can be seen during the narrative problems and complications of Tom and Summer’s relationship. After their break-up, Tom bumps into Summer at a mutual friend’s wedding, she then invites Tom to a party. From this Tom begins to feel his chances of regaining a relationship with Summer is possible. The party scene is depicted in a split-screen fashion, with one side of the screen depicting Tom’s romantic expectations, and the other depicting the actual reality of the event. The reality of the event portrays a saddening disappointment in comparison to Tom’s romantic and idealistic expectations. The split screen eventually merges into a single close-up shot. Tom sees the reality of Summer in a new relationship with a different man, his expectations of kissing Summer and patching up the broken relationship is pushed out of the frame in favor of a close-up of Summer's engagement ring.

Furthermore, this skeptical tone of romance is essentially the films aim to produce a more realist portrayal of adult relationships. This can also be seen in the films fragmented narrative structure, as it does not show the relationship in a linear fashion, instead, it chooses specific moments from Tom's memories. Roger Ebert observes that; ‘Movies are supposed to reassure us that events unfold in an orderly procession. But Tom remembers Summer as a series of joys and bafflements.’ An example of this can be seen during the early stages of the relationship, as the ‘narratively challenging’ structure places two days of Toms relationship with Summer for comparison. The first day shown is day 35, the day after Tom first has sex with Summer. This scene is an extremely joyous moment for the protagonist, and also the audience as throughout the film they are positioned with Tom and his perspective. Many elements of film language make this scene an expression of the protagonist’s happiness. It begins with a long shot of Tom strutting down the street high-fiving everyone in his path, to a soundtrack of Hall and Oats: ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’. This soundtrack works in parallel to this musical performance on screen of Tom breaking out into choreographed dance routine with extras. The scene also has elements of postmodern bricolage to emphasize Tom’s emotions even further. For example, there are animated birds surrounding Tom during his Dance, which is a clear reference to early Disney film musicals that superimpose animation onto real-life performances to emphasize a mise-en-scene dowsed in happiness. There is also a reflected image of the heroic cult icon and more popular Star Wars franchise character Hans Solo, as Tom checks his hair in the reflection of a car window.

The following day depicted within this fragmented narrative of Tom's memories begins in a much less vibrant manner that the musical scene. Instead of Tom strutting in joy, he limbers as he wallows in sadness. The music is also an important element used in this scene, as the forte Hall and Oats pop track, turns into a more piano piece of music with sombre instrumentation and no singing at all. Like the last scene, this music also works parallel to the image on screen, as they both share the same depressing tone.

In conclusion, (500) Days of Summer is a different type of love story because it arguably offers more emotional realism for a spectator to be immersed and identify with. The narrative conventions are subverted as the film depicts the memories of a hopeless romantic in a realist fashion. Roger Ebert observes that; ‘We never remember in chronological order, especially when we’re going back over a failed romance.’ (500) Days of Summer uses this emotional and cognitive concept of memory, and produces a narrative filled with the perks and downfalls of modern romance.

Work's Cited

Ebert, Roger, Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2012’ (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012)

Grindon, Leger, The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2011)

Kaklamandiou, Betty, Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism (New York: Routledge, 2013)

© 2018 Andy Sciambarella

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