Ruby Sparks | Ambitious diatribe on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

ruby sparksBefore Ruby Sparks, there was Canadian pop starlet Robin Sparkles, a fictional character in award winning comedy How I Met Your Mother. Speaking of which, here’s one of my favorite music videos featuring R. Sparkles in her one-hit wonder: Let’s Go to the Mall

With that covered, this thinly veiled Hollywood romcom is centered on Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a cookie-cutter nice guy who’s very unlucky in love because hey… they always finish last. Now, pale and homely looking Calvin, unlike his pal Langdon Tharp (also a novelist), is just an intellectual geek who doesn’t ooze the smooth with ’em ladies. You see… he may be prize-garlanded, creatively gifted, loaded and living in a spacious property but the women don’t really love him. In the first act, he declares cynically, “They’re not interested in me. They’re interested in some idea of me.”

So things aren’t going as well for Calvin as it seems. At a neurotic Woody Allenisque tell-all session with his shrink Doctor Rosenthal, we learn that Calvin, in spite of his “genius” for being a writing prodigy, feels lonely and dissatisfied. The world has been waiting with bated breath for a new novel and horror of horrors, it has been a decade since — writer’s block.

To cut the long story short, Doc attempts to help by asking Calvin to write him a page about someone who loves Calvin’s pet dog Scotty just the way he is — a slobbery, frightened mess of furball.

The tortured lad does so and creates fictional dream girl “Ruby Sparks” (Zoe Kazan, also the film’s writer). He then wakes up one morning to find her cooking in his kitchen. For real. A figment of Calvin’s imagination springs to life and loves him just the way he is, as she does Scotty! Naturally, they bask in the bliss of a honeymoon phase, but happiness is short-lived because dramatic story-telling dictates a rough patch will soon hit.

Calvin re-writes Ruby’s character to circumvent the fact. Constantly re-designing her wants and needs to ensure unflinching devotion. The gist of it is, reality has the luxury of being mimeticized on paper and Calvin resolves any relationship crisis by refashioning Ruby — at the expense of loving his girlfriend [and by extension, women in general] just the way she is, warts and all. The second act orbits around this conflict and we’re stranded for a long time in cute moments of back-and-forth for what seemed like excessive posturing.

Obviously, the main vehicle driving this film is anti-MPDG: an exposition on idealizing women and stock characterizations of the manic pixie dream girl. [Interview with screenwriter, also the actor playing Ruby Sparks further confirms this.]

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a stock character in films. Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.’

MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up, thus their men never grow up. The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has been compared to another stock character, the “Magical Negro,” a black character who seems to exist only to provide spiritual or mystical help to the (white) protagonist. In both cases, the stock character has no discernible inner life, and usually only exists to provide the protagonist some important life lessons.

Another prominent example is Summer Finn from 500 Days of Summer.

However, something is strangely baffling about the narrative because its final act, wanders into self-contradiction by pandering to a perfect Hollywood ending. Here’s how: things accelerate at a dinner party when Langdon tries to seduce Ruby, and Calvin has a showdown with ex-girlfriend Lila then returns home. He quarrels with Ruby and snaps before redeeming himself by virtue of cliché epiphany — to love is to set her free. Case in point, Ruby leaves only to return very soon again after another meet-cute chance encounter.

* cue credits *

The problem with this film is two fold.

Lofty enterprise gives way to deus ex machina stock ending where boy loses pixie dream girl and wins pixie dream girl again. In theory, Calvin does acquire “maturity” and “grow up” in the end. Problem is, for this to be effective artistically requires his evolution to be dramatized with tact and honesty. Not parceled out to the plot (and viewers) via high-sounding speeches on a feminist-debate excursion. Failing which, a daring counterpoint to heteronormative privilege or expectations so often demanded of romantic comedies (and women).

Secondly, Calvin’s illusion and his idealized vision of a “perfect” girl are hotly challenged in the first place. The fact that he winds up with MPDGv2.0 in a happy ending strikes you at the height of eyebrow frowning improbability — and speaks to the level of perspective Ruby Sparks really operates on. To put simply, the essence of subject matter is artificially resolved in exchange for what could’ve been the counter-culture this film claims to be.

[To name a few acclaimed examples, see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Woman Under the Influence, Annie Hall, Zero Dark Thirty and The Way We Were].

Well, there are some bits to enjoy in this otherwise puzzling story. Especially a sequence depicting Ruby’s exaggerated clinginess. Here, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who made charming feel-good comedy Little Miss Sunshine) amplifies the absurdity of Calvin’s plight with wholehearted humor. Still, this quickly runs out of spark under narrative weight of the film’s key emphasis, the dream girl.

On the overall, Ruby Sparks’ well-meaning diatribe gags on itself and tries too hard with screeching pastiches of Charlie Kaufman’s meta-fiction fantasy and Woody Allen’s acid-tongued rhetoric. A lineup of supporting characters in Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas and Elliott Gould also rumbles in and then out again too quickly. Vanishing under the enormous self importance of megalomaniac romantic bulletin. Beyond obvious allusion to mythic Pygmalion (a sculptor who fell in love with the statue he carved), that Doc Rosenthal is referential to the Pygmalion [aka Rosenthal] Effect is unfortunately embarrassing and post-ironic of the pseudo-intellectual variety.



4 responses to “Ruby Sparks | Ambitious diatribe on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

  1. I honestly thought this was a great movie… right until the last 5 minutes where it completely implodes, destroying all the good it had done up until that point.

    • Exactly… hollywood ending result in the film self-contradicting. Thereby obliterating any payoff being promised in Act I & II. :-/

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