Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Zoe Kazan
Starring Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Elliot Gould, Chris Messina, Anette Benning, and Antonio Banderas
Rated R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use
Running Time of 104 Minutes
Although a relatively new theory, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term coined by Nathan Rabin, has been discussed and debated often over the last 7 years. According to Rabin, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, “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.” This theory has caught on to the point that now many of the classic screen females of the 1930s and beyond have been retroactively labeled as such. Does this type of girl exist in real life? That’s the question, isn’t it? There are millions upon millions of girls in this world each with their own unique behavior, experiences, and personality. I suppose this particular type of dream girl would exist, then, but it would not be dependent upon their personality but rather upon what she means or represents to a particular man. From a cinematic standpoint, then, this becomes problematic. It’s not so much that this type of girl would not or does not exist, in terms of their personality, but rather that the worst cases of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in cinema are female characters that exist solely to benefit the man. They have no arc or narrative of their own. They don’t serve their own purpose. They exist as an object, a toy, an idea. Certain films that have characters that have been labeled as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl actually defy convention when you take a few steps back and evaluate the characters deeper, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and (500) Days of Summer. Ruby Sparks, written by the film’s star Zoe Kazan, effectively serves to explore and theoretically abolish this entire cinematic theory. Unfortunately, I think it fails on multiple accounts.
Ruby Sparks takes this concept to the most extreme level, and literally has its protagonist, the boring and unlikable Calvin (Paul Dano, sleepy and lacking charisma or energy) create his dream girl out of thin air. It’s a bit surreal and utilizes cinematic magic that is never explained and has no rules, but we are simply forced to go with it. Calvin is an archetype himself, the dull writer that had great success many years ago but has struggled to follow up his great work with something new and substantial. He hates being called a genius. He is neurotic and lonely. He’s a Woody Allen character without any of the observation or humor. He is a drip. All he wants is to meet a girl that likes his dog, and so at the suggestion of his therapist (Elliot Gould, always a welcome presence) he begins to write. As his words hit the typewriter he uses for all of his work, he begins to fall in love with his character. This, of course, can be a thinly veiled warning to writers and creators to not get too involved with their work. But then, Calvin’s creation, Ruby, slowly comes to life. It would be easy enough for the film to follow a simple, light, and straightforward course from that point on. Instead, Zoe Kazan has other ideas.
Ruby is everything that Calvin wants her to be. She’s an artist, a bit of a rebel, sociable, and yes, quirky. She exists purely to serve Calvin. In fact, Calvin discovers, along with his sleazy brother (Chris Messina) that by continuing to type about Ruby she will change her entire purpose or personality. She’s happy! She’s miserable! All she wants is Calvin! On the surface this is an extremely icky and creepy concept, a little bit Dr. Frankenstein, a lot of every sad and depressed young man’s deranged fantasy. Zoe attempts to make this less creepy by having Calvin be a stand up nice guy, but even he succumbs to his worst tendencies. What Zoe is trying to say, then, is that we cannot shape our partners to be who we want them to be. In a relationship we must each be our own person with our own desires and personality that compliment each other equally. This, of course, squashes the entire notion of the aforementioned Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Zoe argues that this type of character is a disaster and a fallacy, and she does it by creating the ultimate version of that type of character. I don’t think any of this works, though, mostly because it’s all so shallow and obvious. As a performer, Zoe is charming and adorable, and as a writer she has afforded herself the opportunity to play every emotion imaginable as Ruby’s personality constantly shifts. As a screen character, though, Ruby is absolutely unbearable. This is likely a comment on my personal taste, but a more potent attempt at this theoretical deconstruction would have been with a character that is far more likable and not the shrill shrew that Ruby Sparks truly is. As awful as the trope can be, I have at least witnessed many of these dream girls in film that are likable.
The film’s other major issue is the tone. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have made Ruby Sparks their first film since the 2006 critical smash Little Miss Sunshine (a film I love), and they do absolutely no service to Zoe’s script. The film is at odds with itself, at times playing like a wacky comedy, at times playing serious moments too light and light moments too serious. Dayton and Faris’ work is pedestrian at best, and their over-reliance on music to heighten scenes becomes tiring and kills what could have been more potent moments. Worst of all, they seem to have no grasp on either Calvin or Ruby as characters and what should make their unique relationship be so fascinating. They never allow the film to slow down and breathe, instead over-stuffing it with cute cinematic elements that undermine Zoe’s script’s more serious intentions.
Conceptually, I love the idea of a film that attempts to deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It could have been a work of brilliant post modernism. Zoe’s intentions are sound, but her execution is shrill and obvious. Two scenes towards the end of the film stink of desperation and are at odds with each other, and point to the film’s large problems. The first, arguably the film’s climatic moment, is an over-the-top and overlong moment that I found embarrassing and completely out of character for Calvin. The second, the film’s final scene, I found to be intellectually insulting and at complete odds with the rest of the film’s theme. Worst of all it is nonsensical in terms of the film’s magical rules, or lack thereof. It undermines everything that came before it, and kills any chance the film had of pulling it all together in the end.