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By Andrew Watson · August 9, 2011
Screenplay by Scott. Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
“Just because some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t make her your soul mate.”
Has there been a romantic comedy that has managed to capture people’s attention more than (500) Days of Summer? With believable and imperfect characters, a fresh and inspiring narrative style coupled with a premise which speaks to so many of us, it’s no wonder audiences (even rom-com loathers) flocked to it. A testament to its quality, it managed to gross twenty-seven times its budget.
Surprisingly, the grand gimmick at the centre of it, the narrative switching between random days in the story of their relationship is not new. Christopher Nolan illustrated this seemingly random narrative 14 years ago in his low budget debut Following, about an unemployed writer who shacks up with a thief. The results encompass a bunch of jumbled up scenes that tell a much larger and coherent story. What (500) Days of Summer writers Neustadter and Weber did was to take that central idea and apply it to a typical relationship, giving them freedom to jump from timeframe to timeframe without baffling the audience. But crucially, the 90 minute comedy is still rigidly structured, each scene giving us more information, each scene developing its characters and as the film progresses, the stakes are raised. There is nothing random about (500) Days of Summer.
(The following analysis is taken from the script, rather than the feature film. The source is an unspecified draft, dated April 16, 2008. Judging from the date, it is likely that this is the final draft)
TONE & GENRE
First and foremost, we must start with the tagline:
Narrator: This is a story of boy meets girl…You should know up front, this is not a love story.
The tagline alone tells us what we need to know: we’re dealing with “indie” sensibilities and a style that will use a Narrator, who speaks to the audience directly, using second person “you” to engage the reader, but all in all (500) Days of Summer is still a romantic comedy. And even though it immediately attempts to distance itself from other films on the market through it’s “indie” tone, it still conforms to the usual mechanics of the genre: two people of contrasting personalities locked together in a situation until they fall in love. Or in (500)’s case, the film twists the usual and turns it into the opposite: until they fall out of love, or rather until one of them falls out of love.
We learn about a character a number of ways: by what the character says, by what the character does, by what others say and do around the character, as well as by examining the character’s living and working environments/settings. For our protagonist’s introduction, we discover Tom’s current work/life situation and ultimate goal without him having to say a word.
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY
TOM HANSEN sits at a very long rectangular conference table. The walls are lined with framed blow-up sized greeting cards. Tom, dark hair and blue eyes, wears a t-shirt under his sports coat and Adidas tennis shoes to balance out the corporate dress code. He looks pretty bored.
NARRATOR: The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met…”the one.”
INT. LIVING ROOM – 1989
PRE-TEEN TOM sits alone on his bed engrossed in a movie. His walls are covered in posters of obscure bands. From the TV, we hear: “Elaine! Elaine!”
NARRATOR: This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie, “The Graduate.”
The location of the conference room maximizes Tom’s introduction by giving us some small clues (“T-shirt”, “Adidas”, “bored”) to his professional problem, and the secondary obstacle that Tom must face that is hidden underneath: He’s a creative guy who is settling for a steady pay check in a job he hates, and he must find a way to escape the professional prison he has built around himself so that he can fulfill his potential as an architect.
The 1989 flashback, however, hits the primary root of the major issue in the film: Tom’s unrealistic belief in finding “the one.” We now know he has been setting himself up for tragedy because he is still chasing after a quixotic fantasy.
But page 2 is much more than just a solid introduction for our hero; we’re also introduced to the film’s antagonist, and Summer is clearly the external obstacle for Tom: He desperately wants to keep her as “the one” he will spend the rest of his life with, yet we know she is not his soul mate, will pull away from him, eventually cutting the relationship off.
NARRATOR: The Girl, Summer Finn of Shinnecock, Michigan, did not share this belief.
INT. BATHROOM – 1994
PRE-TEEN Summer stares at herself in the mirror. Her hair extends down to her lower back.
NARRATOR: Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things. The first was her long brown hair.
She picks up scissors from the country and begins to slice.
NARRATOR: The second was how easily she could cut it off…And feel nothing.
Summer’s introduction illustrates not only her role as the pending antagonist but also her ability to “cut it off” without emotional ties. A person who feels “nothing” after a relationship can deliver tremendous emotional hurt onto others. And the fact that she has only loved two things – the second being the ability to destroy the first – sets up the future conflict for Tom beautifully. He is going to be cut off, which will shatter him emotionally, yet she will feel nothing. Summer is clearly a modern day black widow: use him, enjoy him, terminate him.
WORLD OF THE STORY
The following exchange takes place in the boardroom of the greeting card company where Tom works, and as the film progresses, we revisit that company from time to time. Considering the office romance is a situation that has been mined many times before, it’s a great way of freshening up a familiar premise. And as with all romantic comedies, there is the ‘meet cute’ in which Tom Hansen meets Summer Finn:
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY
Tom as we saw him earlier. Bored. In the boardroom. McKenzie is in mid-presentation.
MCKENZIE: …and if we want to jump on those conservative, right wing neo-Nazis at Hallmark, maybe playing it safe is the wrong approach. The nuclear family is dead and we need a new holiday to recognize that.
McKenzie holds up a home-made photoshopped family portrait of Martina Navratilova, Ellen DeGeneres, and the kid from “Jerry Maguire”.
MACKENZIE: May 21st. Other Mother’s Day.
Vance: Hmm. That’s an intriguing idea McKenzie. Along with Grossman’s “Magellan Day” I’d say we’ve got some potential here. What do you think Hansen? Could you write up some prototypes for these?
Tom is about to answer when…the door opens.
Summer: Excuse me, My Vance? There’s a call for you on line 3.
And in walks this girl. Summer. We’ve met her by now but Tom hasn’t. This is the first time. His eyes go wide and from that moment on, he can’t take them off her
Vance (to the table): Everyone, this is Summer, my new assistant. Summer just moved here from…
We’ve had scenes between Tom and Summer on a few of the previous pages, so for the sake of clarity the writers mention that this is a different time line. Importantly, they don’t ramble, simply stating, “This is the first time.” Being an atypical romantic comedy about a more realistic relationship, the meet cute is… unremarkable. This could happen in any office up and down the country, which is why it works so well. The audience buys into it because it’s plausible and believable.
We know from the first line of the screenplay that this film “is not a love story”, so we’re prepared right away for an alternate take on the “boy meets girl” set up. The Dramatic Situation in (500) Days of Summer is not about setting up the question of how the boy and girl will end up happily ever after. Conversely, it’s about setting up why they won’t.
INT. DINER – EARLIER THAT NIGHT
SUMMER: I think we should stop seeing each other.
INT. TOM’S PLACE – AS BEFORE
RACHEL: Just like that?
TOM: Just like that.
PAUL: Did she say why?
INT.DINER – AS BEFORE
SUMMER: This thing. This whatever it is. You and Me. Do you think this is normal?
TOM: I don’t know. Who cares?! I’m happy. Aren’t you happy?
SUMMER: You’re happy?
TOM: You’re not?
This exchange has naturally taken Tom aback; he didn’t see the end coming. For the rest of the film, the audience will piece together all of Tom’s memories to find out why the relationship has failed. This is one of the problems in Tom’s life that he has to solve, and the first clue is dropped on:
RACHEL: Let’s be rational for a second.
TOM: Yes. Let’s.
RACHEL: You’ve broken up with girls before.
RACHEL: Girls have broken up with you before.
TOM: This is different
TOM: Cause it’s Summer.
The biggest problem in Tom’s life is that he spends the entire story thinking Summer is ‘The One’. From the first time he lays eyes on her, his expectations sky rocket, in a manner not in line with the reality.
The surface theme is obvious: Man vs. Man (or more specifically Woman). But when taking a closer look at this story, we discover that the underlying root of the conflict is less about the battle of the sexes. The struggle is an internal conflict. Tom is stuck because of Tom. He is his own worst enemy, so the deeper theme here is: Man vs. Himself.
There is reality and there is the fantasy universe going on in Tom’s head. He has unrealistic “expectations” for his future life with Summer, the perfect girl. And because he has put her on such a high and unparalleled pedestal, he is blind to the many flaws she possesses, nor can she even achieve the colossal bar that Tom has set for her. This theme of Man vs. Himself underpins the major question of (500) Days of Summer: How can we enter a successful relationship with unrealistic expectations? When we live our lives through fantasy, we are only setting ourselves up for tragedy. And this is why (500) Days of Summer is so refreshing. It’s foundation rests on a theme we’ve all experienced, and that’s why we’re hoping Tom will wake up and see who Summer really is, fearing that he won’t.