You would think that someone who grew up with an unhealthy dose of rom-coms would appreciate the beauty of love stories and the heavily adulterated but intoxicating concoction of romance, right from the meet-cute to the happily-ever-after. You have seen characters miss flights, cross oceans, miraculously change themselves as persons – all for the sake of ending up with their 'one true love'.
There is a phase in your early-to-mid teens when you strongly believe in wild things, like true love and when you say things like "I can change the world" from the comfort of your living room. That is, before you get disillusioned by the world, start to question the picture-perfection that is seamlessly woven into fairy-tale romances and think "God, those rom-coms!", while stomping your foot in annoyance.
If you are indeed exhausted by cheesy, dramatic on-screen love affairs, I ask you to put aside those pre-conceived notions while I make a case for one of the most refreshing rom-coms of all times – 500 Days of Summer (2009). Eleven years after its initial release, the theme it seeks to convey remains universally relevant despite the various transformations that romantic love has gone through, onscreen as well as beyond the screens (in the real lives of individuals). The movie is, in some ways, an anti-rom-com. At the outset, it appears to have the quintessential elements of every rom-com but it only dismantles these elements, rubbishing each idea as a break-up unravels, turning the life of the protagonist on its head and giving him a much-needed reality check. The film does not shy away from pointing out that rom-coms (along with greeting cards, songs and pop culture) can actually distort one's perception of love by romanticising it to dangerous extents – as it happens in the case of Tom Hansen. It appears to be a parody of love stories. Or a parody of our collective perceptions of romantic love.
To look at the characters: Tom Hansen embodies the idea of a hopeless romantic. He falls haplessly in love with Summer Finn and after their initial interactions, he is only more convinced that they are meant to be soulmates. The juxtaposition of their beliefs in love is apparent when Tom says "It's love, it's not Santa Claus" to which Summer responds, "There's no such thing as love, it's a fantasy".
A person's behaviour carries the indelible mark of their past experiences and is continuously evolving into new forms even as they forge a bond with someone. It is this change that we grapple with. This is the same reason that, advice like "Never change, just be yourself" makes no sense even if it is a passing, empty remark written on slam book to fill up space. In inter-personal relationships, we are attuned to prefer security and commitment. In a scene, Tom explains that he needs to know that "you won't wake up in the morning and feel differently". He finds his idea of Summer to be perfect, albeit with his rose-coloured glasses on. When he is in mourning post-breakup, his sister says that he is only "remembering the good stuff". So, Tom goes back to notice the "first signs of trouble" in his relationship and he comes to realise that Summer was not as perfect as he made her out to be.
Most of the audience ended up antagonising Summer Finn because the movie is from Tom's point of view and it is startling to find that the girl who was so commitment-phobic with Tom ends up finding love and getting married to someone else not much later. However, Tom Hansen is himself a problematic character and his obsession with finding 'the one' and believing that Summer was indeed 'the one' could have possibly blinded him to the realities of their relationship. Eventually, Tom moves on and meets another girl, who is perhaps his 'one true love' and perhaps not.
In many ways, Tom himself is a product of a society that has romanticised love, building expectations and creating fairy-tale romances that do anything but mirror real-life encounters. It is also why he grew up believing that he would be happy only with his soulmate. In an amazing sequence, the movie shows a split screen of Tom's reality versus his expectations. Part of growing up is realising that your life is not going to resemble the rom-coms you grew up watching, and accepting this fact. 500 Days of Summer showed me a reality that contrasted from the protagonist's wishes, and somewhere within the depths of my mind that struck a chord. But it also reinstated the idea that despite the disappointments, there are silver linings even in apparent heartbreaks. Perhaps precisely due to the heartache, you learn and grow as a person – you end up a cynic sometimes, but that is okay too. All is well in cupid's paradise, but don't forget to remove your rose-coloured glasses every once in a while.
"Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final."
—Rainer Maria Rilke