Thursday, August 11, 2011

Character Study: Tom Hansen

A year ago I wrote my first Character Study about Summer Finn. So, I find it terribly fitting that I post this one about her counterpart, Tom Hansen. This was another essay I had written for my Lit class last year (my final, actually) and was originally titled, "The Story of a Boy" (which is also the title of a beautiful Between the Trees song).

Love – some people say that it doesn’t really exist, that love is just the combination of chemicals in the brain and the natural instinct to reproduce. They point to the rising statistic of failed marriages and divorces and proclaim that love is a fairy tale. (500) Days of Summer’s Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is not one of those people.

He is an unabashed romantic who still believes in fate and that it will lead him to the girl he is destined to be with. Then, Tom falls head-over-heels for Summer Finn, a lovely girl who doesn’t believe in love. And when she dumps him, his whole world is destroyed. However, Tom succeeds in piecing himself back together and thus growing in the process. Being with Summer sets Tom on a course of self-development and, though he doesn’t end up with her, he ultimately becomes a better person.

Even at the start, the narrator introduces Tom as the hopeless romantic. He is a boy who grew up listening to “sad British pop music” and who buys into the Hallmark idea of true love. He believes in an all-consuming, life-changing love that he’d one day find in the arms of a beautiful woman. Ironically, Tom ends up writing cheesy lines for a greeting card company; spewing quixotic sayings day in and day out in the name of commercialism.

Tom’s romanticism puts him in stark contrast with Summer’s cynicism. She is a realist, a pessimist, Tom would say, who believes that love is just a fantasy. She tells him that she’s been in plenty of relationships and has never seen this love that he speaks of. Despite this, Tom is captivated by her. He is first introduced to her by his boss, Mr. Vance, at a work conference. Almost immediately, he is convinced that she is the One.

An aside by the austere narrator reveals that Summer is a unique girl. Though she seems to be “just another girl,” the narrator explains a phenomenon he calls the “Summer effect,” whereby Summer is offered lower rates for her apartments and is the subject of many double-takes during her commute to work. Summer has that indefinable quality that makes men fall in love with her, and she has captured Tom. He ascribes their meeting to the hand of fate, working to put them together, and it isn’t until he revisits these moments that he realizes he was wrong.

At the beginning of the film, Tom is an unmotivated greeting card writer. He studied to be an architect, as evidenced by the building sketches on his desk and the walls of his apartment, but has abandoned that dream, for the pragmatic reason of needing a job. In this, Tom is a realist, not an idealist. He doesn’t believe in himself anymore and has resigned himself to working a desk job in an office.

However, this is juxtaposed with Tom’s views on romantic relationships. He is in love with the idea of love and believes that he cannot possibly be happy without the One. Summer is perceived by Tom “as this ideal woman." Tom truly believes that Summer is the One, so the breakup is especially crushing.

When Tom and Summer first speak at the office, Tom comically stumbles through a conversation. Summer asks Tom if he’s any good as an architect and he expresses some doubt that he is. However, when Summer walks back to her desk, Tom starts sketching again, as if inspired by that brief moment with Summer.

Their relationship doesn’t seem to go anywhere until an office party at a karaoke bar, where Tom and his friend, McKenzie, get to know Summer a little better. When a very drunken McKenzie spills the beans that Tom likes Summer, she seems very intrigued by the notion and confronts Tom directly. The next day at work, she approaches him the copy room and promptly starts making out with him.

This seems to be the fulfillment of Tom’s wishes. But Tom, being the romantic, isn’t only interested in the physical aspects of a relationship. He wants to connect with Summer on a deeper level. He wants to be her boyfriend. Unfortunately, Summer isn’t sure what she wants.

Without a doubt, there is an attraction between the two. Their impromptu date takes them to IKEA, where Summer confesses that she isn’t “looking for anything serious.” As one would expect, Tom is not too happy with this revelation, but he hides it. This is where Tom gets himself into trouble.

As another woman would later tell Tom in the movie, Summer makes it very clear that she doesn’t want a boyfriend. However, Tom fools himself into thinking that what they have is a relationship, hoping to change her perceptions along the way. This wouldn’t be a problem if Summer didn’t play along, but it is obvious that she does feel something for Tom. Their relationship evolves into nights at the movies and shower sex and they are clearly more than friends.

On day 55, we see another instance of Summer inspiring Tom. They walk the streets of Los Angeles as Tom points out what he loves about the city. Throughout this scene, the audience gets to see how passionate Tom is about architecture. Summer even encourages him to show her by drawing on her arm. This inspiration is critical to Tom’s growth as a character.

When Summer breaks it off with Tom, his entire world comes crashing down. This is illustrated in the scene after Summer’s party by the washing out of colors and subsequent erasing of everything else except for Tom. The French film montage also plays a role in symbolizing Tom’s brokenness. (500) Days of Summer is eloquent when it comes to translating the characters’ emotions via color and music. When everything is going well with Summer, Tom’s world is almost completely blue, the color associated with Summer. The images on the screen are echoed by cheerful music, such as Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.” When things are bad, Tom’s world is gray, backgrounded with the brooding music of Regina Spektor’s “Hero.” Since the entire film is shot from Tom’s perspective, the images and the sounds presented echo Tom’s moods.

Tom’s brokenness, however, is just the beginning. While, at first, he doesn’t do anything but mope, he eventually starts to sketch and re-devote himself to architecture in what is possibly part of this plan to get Summer back. Somewhere in the recesses of Tom’s fragile mind, he believes that if he can become an architect, Summer would take him back. Though this is arguably an unhealthy motive, it is instrumental in launching Tom on his voyage of betterment.

The film shows Tom going to several firms in Los Angeles, submitting his portfolio. We see that he is rejected, but Tom doesn’t give up. He continues to shop his portfolio around, determined and driven by the belief that if he succeeds with this, then he could get Summer back. While Tom is focusing on his career, however, the audience is treated to a split-shot that shows Summer marrying a man off-screen. This shot is interesting because it juxtaposes Tom on one side with Summer in her bridal veil on the other, as if to emphasize that it should be him there with her but that they are separated. It is the anti-cliché of a romantic comedy, wherein the two main characters are supposed to be together forever.

Tom’s dedication is rewarded in one of the final scenes of the film. He meets Summer at their favorite spot in the city, where she confesses that he was right all along: true love did exist. When he meets this with barely veiled sarcasm, Summer rebukes him by telling him that it just wasn’t her that he was right about. In the next scene, when Tom goes to a job interview, he meets a beautiful woman competing for the same position. Tom, who now has had his closure over Summer, flirts with her and even goes so far to ask her on a date. The woman agrees and introduces herself as Autumn.

The symbolism here couldn’t be more obvious. Seasonally, autumn comes after summer. Tom had believed that Summer was the One, but it was the girl after Summer, Autumn, who is presumably the One. At least, for Tom’s sake, the audience hopes she is the One. It would be most unfortunate if Tom had to go through that heartbreak all over again. But that’s beside the point; at this point, Tom has grown as a person, after realizing that he was wrong about Summer and reaffirming his belief in love.

The uncommon narrative structure is a crucial part of telling the film’s story. The plot readily jumps between past and present, revisiting the days of Tom’s and Summer’s relationship. Michael H. Weber, one of the screenwriters, wrote that the narrative structure mirrored “how memory really works, where something will trigger your mind to think of an amazing, wonderful moment and then that will trigger the memory of a bad moment and then comes a revelation of how they were all connected."

(500) Days of Summer isn’t a movie about boy meets girl, not entirely. It’s a story about a boy broken by love, who sorts through his memories of a girl, eventually finding closure and moving on. It’s a movie about an unmotivated greeting card writer whose past passion for architecture is reignited by the hope of winning back an old flame. And, as the august narrator states in the opening lines of the film, it isn’t a love story. It’s a story about love.

This picture was drawn by my friend, Rachel, who has an amazing Flickr page


  1. wow..nice analysis!

  2. I love the insight and expressiveness of all your character analyses — this one and Summer's especially! Doesn't hurt that 500 Days of Summer is one of my all-time favorite movies ;)

  3. I had goosebumps while reading this.