One of the many things that I love about “500 Days of Summer” is how difficult it is to classify. It’s a movie about romance that manages to be fun and charming, yet can also be horrifyingly relatable and wildly depressing at the same time.
It’s the story of two people — both of whom are probably not entirely unlike you or someone you know — that are obviously wrong for one another, yet choose to default to stupidity, hope, desperation (or some combination of the three) and ignore that fact in hopes that they’ll stumble into love. Spoiler alert for an eight-year old movie: It doesn’t work out.
What’s even more endearing is that this is something the movie’s narrator warns you about just a few minutes into the movie.
“This is a story about boy meets girl, but you should know up front: This is not a love story.”
It all falls apart when Summer — a girl who is so skeptical of love and commitment that at one point she’s accused of being a dude — decides she’s had enough of Tom — a hopeless romantic who requires a significant other to provide his life with a sliver of meaning — and shatters his heart by dumping him, then getting engaged (and, ultimately, married) to some other dude shortly thereafter.
Because it’s Summer who ends up standing in the way of the stereotypical Hollywood fairy tale ending, it’s easy to come away with the conclusion that she’s a jerk. There’s a temptation to say she screwed it all up by being cynical and not appreciating the endless love that Tom showered upon her. But while Summer can come across as stubborn and cold-hearted at points, it’s lazy and wrong to put all the blame on her, especially considering she repeatedly told Tom she wasn’t looking for anything serious.
It’s easy to look at the heartbroken guy and say “poor him” but Tom is flawed and that’s established right from the jump. He’s swiftly introduced (by the narrator) as someone who “knew he’d never truly be happy until he met ‘the one.'” That immediately provides a window into what kind of person we’re dealing with here: someone so consumed with finding or being in a relationship that they allow someone else to dictate their own happiness and well-being. Someone in constant search of finding someone else to make them feel whole. Anyone who has ever dealt with this kind of person knows how frustrating and exhausting they can be.
The two main characters both have common emotional flaws that can often lead to frustrating and cringe-worthy moments, but the fact that these realistic flaws (realistically) kept them from finding lasting happiness together is a big part of the movie’s charm.
But I’ve also found that it often leads to a debate over which character deserves more blame for the way things ended up and, more broadly, who seems to be the worse person throughout the course of their relationship,
So, with that in mind, I decided to go ahead and re-watch the movie while keeping a running tally of the transgressions made by Tom and Summer (and friends) to determine who really finishes atop the Asshole Scoreboard.
“Tom Knew almost immediately she’s who he’s been searching for.” (+1 for Tom)
This line (delivered by the narrator in reference to Summer) is an immediate red flag on behalf of Tom’s character. It implies that he believes in love at first sight, which — pardon my French — is a crockpot of bullshit. People who believe in love at first sight are just idiots who have yet to figure out the hard truth that many hot people who draw your immediate interest will greatly disappoint you when it turns out they have personalities that suck some real serious ass.
Considering Tom has already been established as someone who obsesses over relationships and finding “the one,” he likely projects his fantasies onto attractive people like Summer quite frequently. And considering he’s still single when he encounters Summer for the first time, it hasn’t quite worked out for him up until this point. He should know better but he just can’t help himself.
“It’s Amanda Heller all over again.” (+1 for Tom)
The first scene following the opening credits features Tom having and an emotional meltdown over Summer. His friends (McKenzie and Paul) call upon Tom’s much-younger sister (Rachel) to help, presumably because she’s the only person who is able to comprehend and equalize his lack of maturity. When Rachel arrives at Tom’s apartment, he’s busy smashing dinner plates in the kitchen (you know, like an adult) while McKenzie briefs that “it’s Amanda Heller all over again.”
This, of course, is to suggest that it’s not wildly uncommon for Tom to respond to things not going his way by acting like a destructive toddler who needs his little sister to break curfew in order to talk him off a ledge. Hey dickhead, try eating an entire tub of ice cream and crying yourself to sleep like the rest of us.
“I’m really glad we did this. I really love these pancakes.” (+1 for Summer)
In one of the earliest glimpses at how cold Summer can be, she suddenly tells Tom that she wants to break up as they sit and wait for pancakes at a diner. It catches Tom by surprise and he tries to protest and talk her out of it, but their food arrives and Summer says that she wants to talk about it later. She proceeds to sit in front of a clearly upset Tom and talk about how delicious her pancakes are and how she’s “really glad we did this.” Brutal.
They often say there’s never a good time to break up with someone, but there are definitely bad times. If you’re going to dump someone in a restaurant setting (you shouldn’t) you may as well wait until AFTER the food comes so you can break their heart on a full stomach.
“There’s only two kinds of people in this world — there’s women and there’s men.” (+1 for Narrator)
Um…binary much, asshole?
“Maybe she’s an uppity, better-than-everyone super skank.” (+1 for McKenzie)
When Summer first arrives to work as an assistant at the card company that employs Tom and McKenzie, the two friends take an immediate interest in her. That is until McKenzie hears through the grapevine that she’s “a bitch” and immediately buys in before meeting her. He relays the information to Tom and proceeds to further assassinate her character while throwing out some incendiary accusations.
He later meets her and tells her that she’s amazing. Whoops.
“It was good.” (+1 for Tom)
When a person you know has a crush on someone, one of the most annoying things they can do is over analyze every interaction they have together. It can often drive them (and everyone else around them) crazy. We see this with Tom when he asks Summer how her weekend was early on in the movie (pre-relationship). He takes exception to her response –“it was good” — because of the emphasis on “good” and is ready to write her off because he assumes her intonation means she spent the weekend banging some other dude.
This sort of crap becomes exponentially more frustrating when considering Tom refuses to put on his big boy pants and just approach her in any sort of straightforward fashion. He references his terrible attempts at flirting as “giving her plenty of chances” while also refusing to ask her out or make a move when she seemingly gives him a chance (specifically in the scene outside the karaoke bar). For someone who’s so desperate to find love, he certainly doesn’t do himself any favors.
Speaking of the scene outside the karaoke bar…
“Well, I’m this way.” (+1 for Tom)
Yes, the best way to win a 20-something girl’s heart is to make her walk home by herself at night in downtown Los Angeles.
Stealing food. (+1 for Tom)
I don’t care if we’re best friends, if you pick food off of my plate then I am well within my rights to murder you.
“I’m thinking about getting a butterfly tattoo on my ankle.” (+1 Tom)
At the beginning of the bar fight scene, Tom and Summer are sharing a pretty unenthusiastic conversation over drinks. At one point, Tom speaks ill of tattoos on women, to which Summer (jokingly) replies that she’s considering getting a small butterfly on her ankle. Tom, not realizing that she’s toying with him, immediately responds with a firm “no” like he has any authority to tell her what she can and can’t do with her body.
Maybe it’s a bit nitpicky and insignificant, but it’s just another example of Tom projecting his fantasies onto Summer in a pretty unfair way. Tom’s dream girl doesn’t have any tattoos so that means Summer shouldn’t have one, even if she truly wanted it. Tom’s in love with the idea of a person more than the person itself.
“I can’t believe THIS is your boyfriend.” (+100000 for Douche)
The filmmakers left absolutely no fat on the dialogue from this guy and the result is a douchebag that would make even douchebags get douche chills. The mannerisms, facial expressions, and delivery from this dude pack such a punch that he’s a first-ballot inductee into the Douchebag Hall of Fame.
If nothing else, you certainly can’t say he didn’t live up to his name.
“We’re just friends.” (+1 for Summer)
Later in the night after Tom was punched in the face by Douche, he and Summer get into an argument over whether Tom had a right to punch the guy in the face for Summer, who still refuses to put any labels on their relationship. Summer tells Tom that they’re “just friends,” a claim on which he predictably (and understandably) pushes back.
It’s one thing for Summer to re-establish that she’s not interested in a serious commitment and that maybe they should pump the brakes a bit, but it’s another to push a “just friends” narrative when you’ve been seeing (and smashing) somebody for nearly 250 days. It’s not like it was a purely physical or sexual relationship, either; they were engaging in full-on couple activities for upwards of half a year.
Maybe neither of them really knew what they were doing at that point or where they were headed, but it was quite clear that they were more than “just friends,” so that’s a super shitty thing to say to someone as invested as Tom.
“Your work performance has been…a little off.” (+1 for Tom)
Following his breakup with Summer, Tom turns into a complete and utter disaster that not only smashes dinner plates at home but also brings his personal problems into the workplace, where he is no longer able to perform the basic functions of his job. When Tom’s boss, Vance, brings this up, he references a card that Tom recently submitted, one that reads “Roses are red, violets are blue … fuck you, whore.” That seems like the kind of shit that wouldn’t fly at Hallmark.
But instead of firing him, Vance does Tom a solid by moving him to a department where he can be better utilized in his current mental state: misery & sympathy. Vance seems like a pretty decent guy with good intentions, though he’s not exactly great at putting things gently. He more or less tells Tom “I understand you currently have nothing to live for, but let’s put that to use in a way that can make me some money.” (+1 for Vance)
Don’t let Vance’s tone deafness distract from the fact that Tom is being a miserable sack of shit at work. People usually don’t want to be at work in the first place, but they especially dread being in the office if there’s a god damn shitbaby incessantly sulking and failing to perform the simple tasks given to him.
“This isn’t going to go anywhere.” (+1 for Tom)
In the midst of his emotional meltdown post-breakup, Tom somehow finds the time and will to go on a date with someone else — a seemingly lovely redhead who was introduced to Tom through a mutual friend. Though this woman is very polite and attractive, Tom immediately tells her that their date (which he should never have gone on in the first place) wasn’t going to go anywhere because he’s still not over his delusional obsession with Summer.
So not only does Tom waste this poor woman’s time and energy with a meaningless date, he also ensures that it’s an absolute nightmare for her by venting and whining about Summer the entire night while she’s forced to sit there and listen. Luckily, she’s finds a moment to deliver a nice cold dose of perspective.
I hope this woman quickly finds love and is able to completely wash this night from her memory.
“It pains me we live in a world where nobody’s heard of Spearmint.” (+1 for Summer)
While browsing through a record store, Tom finds a Spearmint record and says “it pains me we live in a world where nobody’s heard of Spearmint,” to which Summer replies “I’ve never heard of them.” That proves to be a hurtful response when Tom reveals that the mixtape that he gave Summer featured Spearmint on the very first track.
Not listening to a mixtape that a lover gave you (or not retaining the songs featured on it) is a pretty icy move, but it’s especially cold considering Tom and Summer’s relationship is essentially rooted in a shared love of music. Their very first conversation was born out of Tom listening to The Smiths and their first time socializing out of the office was at a karaoke bar. Music is a huge component of the movie so Summer whiffing on the Spearmint reference probably stung Tom pretty good.
The Wedding. (+1 for Summer)
Tom and Summer cross paths for the first time post-breakup when they both attend a co-worker’s wedding. After an initial awkward period, they reconnect and have a great time together while laughing, dancing, drinking and talking about some of the highs and lows of their relationship. The spark seems to still be there and Summer invites Tom to a party she’s throwing the following week, so it’s no surprise that Tom accepts with the hopes that it will lead to them getting back together. On the train ride home from the wedding, Summer falls asleep on Tom’s shoulder. Things are looking good for ol’ Tom!
Except apparently at no point did Summer think that it might be a good idea to disclose that she was seeing someone new — a person that had the potential to hold a very serious role in her life. Summer knows Tom, his feelings towards her, how he operates and how fragile he can be when it comes to love, so for her to not take the simple precaution of letting him know she’s moved on is a pretty awful omission. She didn’t lie to him, but she certainly didn’t take his feelings into much consideration.
The Party (+2 for Summer)
In one of the most famous scenes of the movie, Tom attends Summer’s party while still in the dark about her seeing someone else. We simultaneously get to see how he envisioned the night playing out right beside how it actually unfolds out in reality. The juxtaposition is pretty gutting.
Before we get to the obvious transgression from the party scene, I want to point out that Summer delivers one of the most utterly demeaning and belittling lines of the movie — “Tom could be a really great architect if he wanted to be” — while introducing Tom to her friends. I get that Summer’s intention is to enforce that Tom is capable of being much more than a greeting card writer, but can you imagine how humiliating that would be if you were in Tom’s shoes? My god, I would have pushed her off the roof.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the meat of the horribleness here: Summer invites Tom into her home, bounces around the party from group to group while never once thinking to take a few seconds to pull Tom aside and let him know that she recently got engaged to be married. Obviously, that’s a difficult conversation to have and Tom would undoubtedly be crushed by the news, but it certainly beats the way Summer allowed things to play out.
While hanging out by himself at the party, Tom catches a glimpse of Summer showing off the ring and can’t believe it. He’s understandably upset and embarrassed and immediately leaves the party in anger and defeat.
Despite all of Tom’s annoying tendencies and delusions when it comes to love, he never deserved the fate that Summer handed him — at least not in that way that she managed to deliver it. It’s the kind of cruel and unnecessary thing that makes you question how much she actually cared about him in the first place.
“Get a room.” (+1 for Tom)
It’s no shock that Tom spirals out of control and into depression following the news of Summer’s engagement, but he REALLY lets himself go. For the most part, I’ll try not to hold the crippling sadness against him, but I’ve got to issue a citation for wearing his bathrobe & sandals out in public while shouting “GET A ROOM” at random strangers holding hands on the street. Get it together, man.
“I think we do a bad thing here.” (+1 for Tom)
As Tom continues to wander aimlessly through life following that devastating night at Summer’s party, he eventually decides he’s had enough of working as a greeting card writer and quits his job in ceremonious fashion. He delivers a captivating monologue that actually raises some pretty decent points (“A lot of people buy these things not because they want to say how they feel; they buy cards because they can’t say how they feel. We provide the service that lets them off the hook“) but while doing so he effectively puts down and insults a good number of the people that he has worked closely with on a full-time basis for years.
Tom quitting is probably in everyone’s best interests but his emotionally volatile state leads him to do it in a manner that’s hurtful and ungrateful, especially toward Vance, who put up with more shit from Tom than he needed to and kept giving him chances to redeem himself.
Again, that’s not to say Tom’s reasoning for leaving wasn’t fair, but he doesn’t have to slam the door in the rest of the company’s face on his way out.
Final notes: If you have a character solely dubbed “Douche” in your movie, there’s a good chance he’s going to be the worst person involved. But if we’re considering this a battle between the film’s two main characters, it’s Tom who comes away looking worse thanks to his warped sense of reality and unhealthy scope on love. That being said, the most egregious and unforgivable action (or lack thereof) belongs to Summer, so it’s pretty understandable if some bitterness is pointed in her direction as well.
It seems that people often come away from the movie with a bad taste in their mouth due to the fact that Tom and Summer ultimately don’t end up together. Because the two main characters go their separate ways, it can be seen as an unhappy ending when in reality that’s not the case.
Despite their flaws and annoying tendencies, they’re not particularly bad people. They are, however, very different people who are probably wrong for each other, at least in the long term. Much like Tom, the viewer might choose to ignore those clear differences and just hope that things will find a way to work themselves out and, somehow, lead to happily ever after.
But this is a movie that seems to pride itself on being realistic. The characters are realistic. They deal with realistic issues and make realistic mistakes that result in realistic consequences. If every relationship is a story, most of those stories end in a breakup, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not stories worth telling. It doesn’t mean they’re not important.
This one has a significant purpose. Even though Tom and Summer don’t stay together, their relationship helps them grow as people. They work to facilitate a change in one another that allows them to move on and mature. For Tom, he ultimately learns to take more initiative and work toward a more fulfilling life on his own — we see this with his architecture career, as well as his pursuit of Autumn at the end — rather than sitting around and letting life just fall into place around him.
For Summer, she eventually caves and buys into Tom’s feelings on love and fate, even though it’s not actually Tom who manages to convince her. For Summer, knowing and being with Tom helped her dive into the next relationship, which ended up being “the one.”
If you want to say this movie didn’t have a happy ending, I’ll tell you it had two.