If romantic comedies seek to impress upon us one thing, it’s this: you never know when you’re going to meet ‘the one’. Whether it’s at a wedding, at a party, or even in the queue for Klute, rom-coms insist on some future ‘meet-cute’ when your perfect person comes crashing into your life. With much so much of popular cinema fixated on this moment, films have had to create new, less stylised forms of this chance encounter. Enter Ruby Sparks, a film which, by having the main character write his dream girl into existence, breaks the unwritten law of the rom-com by self-consciously acknowledging the fictive nature of such a meeting. Yet, in doing so, it strays into the dangerous territory of another highly stylised convention of modern cinema: that of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
This curiously-named female, in the words of Nathan Rabin (the critic who coined the term), “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”. Such characters are evident throughout the history of cinema – Barbara Streisand, Katharine Hepburn, even Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, have all been designated as such – but in recent times this figure has become more and more apparent, so much so that you’ve probably encountered her without even knowing it. She’s Natalie Portman, rescuing Zach Braff from medically-induced indolence in Garden State. She’s Rachel Bilson, snapping Zach Braff (spot the trend) out of his suburban crisis in The Last Kiss. She’s Kirsten Dunst, dazzling Orlando Bloom in Cameron Crowe’s 2005 misstep Elizabethtown. And she’s Zooey Deschanel (in many ways the perfect example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) breaking Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s heart in (500) Days of Summer.
To put it simply, the MPDG is the pretty, mysterious, quirky woman who forces the tragically unkempt, slightly awkward guy to become the man he needs to be in order to win the heart of the girl of his dreams – whether she fixes him so that the two of them can be together (as in Garden State), or so that he can then find the perfect girl, á la (500) Days of Summer. So how neatly does the eponymous Ruby Sparks fit into the mould of the MPDG? At first glance, she seems cut from the same cloth as the other dream girls – she’s cute in a pixie-like way, she can be a little manic, and, as her entrance into the film proves, she’s certainly a dream girl.
This appearance, however, is just one of the ways in which the writer and lead actress, Zoe Kazan, sets out to consciously undermine this cinematic trope. Ruby first appears, however indistinctly, in the dreams of Paul Dano’s struggling writer Calvin, designating her quite literally as a dream girl before he even encounters her in the real world. In the midst of a major case of writer’s block, Calvin begins writing about an enigmatic character named Ruby, basing her solely on what sounds “romantic”, and her impossible appearance in his kitchen sets up the film perfectly to critique the very existence of the MPDG. At this moment, we become acutely aware not only of the fictive nature of this cinematic creation, but also of Calvin’s own need to meet her, a need which underscores the apparent purpose of the MPDG – she is simply there to fix the men who encounter her.
This trope has, quite rightly, been branded as misogynistic, as both the film and its writer are quick to point out. The film itself states, “quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real”, whilst Kazan believes the term to be “reductive and diminutive”, evidence that “sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life”. The common criticism often levelled against the MPDG is that she is one-dimensional, possessing only quirks but no palpable substance to make her “real”, and we must, sadly and inescapably, examine her in line with her ‘purpose’ – the effect she has on the brooding male of the piece – to illuminate this.
Calvin is decidedly different from the other men who encounter the MPDG. He doesn’t idolise Ruby in the manner of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer, and unlike Andrew Largeman, the protagonist of Garden State, he doesn’t make her the solution to his problems. Yet the single greatest difference between Calvin and these other lovelorn men is also the film’s strongest, and most intriguing, aspect: he is in complete control of her thoughts and behaviour. We are given some hope for the death of this topos in Calvin’s aloof, at times disinterested demeanour; he seems singularly unaffected by the mania of his dream girl, and hope springs that, at last, we can escape the shackles of this cinematic convention. But there is a darker truth at work here: Calvin is unaffected purely due to the fact that Ruby is an extension of his reality, a truth which becomes starkly apparent when his cold and distant behaviour gives way to a startling revelation of his complete control. The quick changes he has gradually made (from giving her the ability to speak fluent French, to altering her mood when it suits him) in order to make her more agreeable, more real to him, turn into acts of demonstrable cruelty in a scene made grotesque by his complete control.
At this climactic moment of the film, we can see clearly that it’s not just Ruby who has jumped off of the page, it’s the very idea of the MPDG herself made real, and in the cold light of (relative) reality, the cracks in the façade become gaping fissures as Kazan’s script forces us to confront the fakery and pageantry of this dream girl. Damning evidence of the destruction of this trope, you might say. Unfortunately, much like Calvin’s creation, this idealism cannot be sustained forever. The precise moment at which Calvin is faced with losing Ruby – the point at which his controlling personality nearly destroys his vision of perfection – is the moment which forces him to realise the error of his ways and make a change, and thus we can argue that the MPDG has fulfilled her purpose. The problem of a seemingly indestructible trope is not a new problem; the futile attempts of art to capture the beauties and complexities of life is as old as art itself. Kazan is shrewd enough to realise this, and gradually reveals how Ruby’s first escape from the pages of the novel is a false dawn. Her second escape, freed from Calvin’s typewriter forever, catapults her into a proper existence, one outside of the narrow dimensions of the MPDG, but this escape from art into life only reveals the necessary reliance of art on such conventions. As such, though Ruby Sparks may try to put a stake in the heart of the MPDG, the film isn’t able to put the final nail in her coffin.