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Review

Review – The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Returns in Ruby Sparks


In Ruby Sparks, the second film from the directing duo behind Little Miss Sunshine, Paul Dano plays Calvin, a twenty-something writer who wrote a best-selling novel while still in his teens and has since been struggling to overcome writer’s block and take control of his life. The only person he hangs out with—aside from his smarmy agent (Steve Coogan) and his therapist (Elliot Gould)—is his brother. His number one hobby is procrastination. He hasn’t had a girlfriend in years. But all that changes when he wakes up to find that he’s somehow managed to will fictional character Ruby Sparks—a painter, orphaned at a young age, dropped out of high school after an affair with a teacher, Calvin’s dream girl—into existence.

It’s an interesting premise, one that tackles writing and creativity in a meta sort of way (which I have a soft spot for) while also taking a look at a common trope: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. 

You might not know the name, but you almost certainly know the character. She’s a young woman, attractive, spontaneous and above all quirky—and she exists as a character to fall for the buttoned-down sad sack of a protagonist and shake up his life with her adorable spontaneity. She has assorted issues, but they’re less the mark of a well-developed character than a plot device; her difficulties and flaws are framed in the context of how they bring the main character to some sort of realization about his own life. Smarter, more eloquent people than I have analyzed the trope better than I could, but suffice to say it’s a particular pet peeve of mine. So I was excited to see a movie that addresses its sky-high bullshit quotient head-on.

Given that, maybe I went in to Ruby Sparks movie somewhat biased. But for a movie that addresses the trope in such a blatant way, it really doesn’t do anything all too interesting with it. It’s a cute ‘n’ clever movie, one with a good script (written by Zoe Kazan, who plays Ruby) and impressive acting, especially in the brilliantly disturbing scene where Calvin tells Ruby her unbeknownst-to-her origin story. While the movie’s setup draws attention to just how unrealistic Ruby’s type of character is (Calvin’s brother has a particularly good line about how no woman will want to read a book where the female protagonist is a quirky confection whose only flaws are cute ones), its execution past that point slides back into ho-hum storytelling territory.

Take a look at the relationship between Calvin and Ruby. If she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, he suffers from Scott Pilgrim Syndrome. Despite the fact that he’s a sad sack wet blanket with no real job (procrastination can only be called work up to a certain point, as every writer knows) who makes no real effort to actually do any of the things he complains about not doing, his life is freaking awesome. He lives in a gorgeous house. His financial stability is seemingly unthreatened by his years of writer’s block. At one point he complains that he actually wants to date a girl, not just sleep with one of the countless literary groupies clamoring to have a one-night stand with him. Oh, poor you, Calvin. Maybe I’m being too harsh on him—it’s not like material wealth and an abundance of opportunities for meaningless sex are guarantors of happiness—but honestly, he’s less of a realistic character than Ruby is, and Ruby isn’t even real.

When film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in response to Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, he defined 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.” If that’s true, Calvin might be an extreme embodiment of how that same “sensitive writer-director” sees himself: A sensitive young man who, despite his “literary genius” (but Calvin doesn’t like people to mention that, y’all), just can’t shake his eternal existential ennui. Because he’s so sensitive. Or something.

Everything works out for Calvin in the end with virtually no effort on his part. His great character-growth moment comes when he decides to stop using his magical writer powers to whammy Ruby into staying his girlfriend. Wow, do you want a medal? Am I supposed to feel a sense of second-hand pride that it took you an hour-plus to figure out you should stop being a dick? His traumatic experience having broken though his writer’s block, he’s finally able to pen his second novel. And what’s more—here be spoilers for the ending, avert your eyes if you so desire; I thought about keeping this review more-or-less spoiler free but I can’t not address this—he still ends up with Ruby. Her being released from his spell apparently wiped her memory, so when the duo “meet” in the park, Ruby reading Calvin’s book (crazy random happenstance!), Calvin’s able to get a second shot at making their relationship work.

That, to me, seemed like a cop-out. All the shit that went down the relationship—how awful Calvin was to Ruby, how she was the one hurt by his bad decisions—and then by the end of the movie he has his creativity and the girl of his dreams back, with only a few minutes of token emotional turmoil thrown in to show that he grew as a character, really, he did. Calvin’s unrelatable. Ruby’s unrelatable. Am I supposed to be filled a sense of oh-the-world’s-a-beautiful-place-and-I-love-love! that those crazy kids get another shot at their epic romance?

I don’t know, maybe I’m being unfair. Like I said, Ruby Sparks is a good little cute ‘n’ clever (dare I call it… quirky?) movie, and it’s possible that the degree to which I’m frustrated with it is solely due to the fact that I hoped for something different, something more.

*sigh* You know, it’s really hard to find a bearable rom-com when you’re this cynical.

Rebecca Pahle writes for MovieMaker.com.

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  • Anonymous

    Excellent review but can I ask for clarification on one issue? What’s “Scott Pilgrim Syndrome” please? I haven’t read the comic books and as for the film…  So fifteen years too old and the wrong gender to grok that.

    I apologise to anyone who loved that film – but I didn’t!

  • Anonymous

    I never really understood the intense dislike some people have for the MPDG. In fact, I don’t even understand why they bothered finding a name for it. Yes, it’s a trope, but 1) it’s not that frequent, and 2) it’s not the worst stereotype women are stuck with regarding movies. Between the femme fatale, the woman in distress and the “barely there, we don’t know anything about her” type, I take the MPDG anytime. Usually, those characters have more funny lines than every actress in every Adam Sandler movies combined!

    A pet peeve is a pet peeve, I guess.

  • Jessica

    I haven’t seen this film, but I know exactly what you’re talking about and I despise it. I despise it because SO many real life girls who claim to be geeks are MPDGs, amalgamations of “charming” quirks, which they’ve adopted to make themselves seem unique. 

  • http://wrongsirwrong.blogspot.com/ Magic Xylophone

    So… she’s not a tiger?

  • http://twitter.com/acidragdoll Bel

    Unlike you, the shining bastion of geek purity and the arbiter of who is and isn’t a poseur and whose “charming” quirks are and aren’t affected following too many rewatches of The Garden State?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesse.bailey.773 Jesse Bailey

    I don’t think the issue is whether or not the MPDG is better or worse than any other one-dimensional trope, but rather that female characters need to be more central to more stories (not just exist to ‘fatale,’ or be in distress waiting for, the male main character, *or* simply exist to awaken the main character from their button-down funk), and that they need to be well developed characters. I haven’t heard anyone claiming this is the worst trope, but rather that it is another tool to let (mostly male) writers avoid presenting dynamic, deep, and interesting women on screen who are central to the story and involved as active protagonists in their *own* lives and projects.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying – I want well-developped female characters too. My point is that this type of visceral reaction is, to my knowledge, completely unique to the MPDG.

    When Nathan Rabin coined the term, during an Elizabethtown review, Kristen Dunst was still playing Mary Jane in Spider-man, one of the worst case of damsel-in-distress in recent memory (we’re really talking about being saved 3 times per film here). Although the character got some strong reactions, they were all related to Dunst’s performance, not the sexism of the writing.

    To me, the MPDG is only one of the countless stereotypes movies are using. It’s not more realistic than other stereotypes and as far as fantasies goes, it’s pretty harmless. If some people want to change the way women are portrayed in movies, they should direct their anger at the most common and most sexist ones.

  • http://twitter.com/whitniverse Nick Whitney

    Whenever I read a script or see a film with a MPDG in, I can’t help but think, “This writer re-HEAR-ly wanted a girl like this back in school/college/university, but never got her. Because if he did, he’d realise that she has her own stuff to deal with and that she is a fully rounded person.”

    Source: Guilty of it myself.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    “Scott Pilgrim Syndrome” isn’t actually a thing—I just use it because Calvin reminds me of Scott Pilgrim in that they’re both able to survive and flourish (can eat and pay rent despite having no real job, have girls fighting over them, are deemed “cool” in some way by everyone they know) despite also being presented as stereotypical “nerds.” 

    I don’t subscribe to the traditional ideas of nerds living in their parents’ basements and never coming into contact with the opposite sex or whatever—and I actually do like Scott Pilgrim (the movie, haven’t read the books)—but it strikes me as such an unrealistic wish fulfillment-type thing that it always kind of bugs me and amuses me simultaneously. 

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    I don’t think the MPDG is the worst/most harmful stereotype, by any means. It’s just one that bugs the crap out of me, because A) as Jesse points out, it presents the female characters in question as, basically, arm candy, B) it’s bad storytelling—giving ANY character, MPDG or not, a few token quirks or flaws and taking it as a given that the audience will therefore find them “deep” or “interesting” is lazy BS. You want us to think a character is well-developed, you’ve gotta provide some character development. I do agree, however, that both those points could serve equally well as a blanket criticism of fictional female stereotypes in general.

    C) is personal, and probably a bit unfair, but whatever, I’m saying it. As someone who grew up with severe social anxiety, presenting the common MPDG personality trait of “doesn’t fit in, doesn’t know how to deal with people, is shy” as cute and quirky is insulting. Being socially awkward is not cute. Being socially awkward tends to suck.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    I dislike the MPDG in fiction, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable labeling someone IRL as an MPDG. I mean, any real person is going to be 100x more complex than an MPDG by virtue of the fact that the latter was created to serve the male protagonist’s storyline and the former is an actual living, breathing human being. 

    If a girl who’s never read a comic book wants to wear a Batman t-shirt or something, more power to ‘em. People like what they like.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    That’s an interesting point. I wonder if the reason people (myself included) latch onto MPDG so much is because it exists at the intersection of sexism and nerdery? There’s always that debate of what a “real” nerd is, particularly since so many aspects traditionally thought of as nerdy (superheroes, sci-fi, etc.) have become part of mainstream culture. The MPDG hatred could be tied in with that, as I would say the MPDG usually has some sort of “nerd chic” thing going on.

  • Jessica

    By George I think she’s got it.

  • Anonymous

    There’s gotta be something generational about it because it’s so new. In a weird way, I find it some kind of progress because what the MPDG offer to the male hero (companionship, understanding) is less superficial than what the femme fatale offer, which is sex and the opportunity to act like a male.

    Of course, I’m a geeky man, not a geeky woman. I figure it must be extra-annoying to see a character that is supposed to represent you but is completely unrealistic about it. More so than the femme fatale type, who doesn’t really represent anybody.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=656140743 Jeane Ess

    I love the MPDG! I actually look for these times of movies! They are the best! Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State, Sweet November, Happy-Go-Lucky, Three to Tango, I probably can think of more but my point is I like the trope :) nothing wrong with that. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=39603889 Lauren Seals

    I think just because it’s not the worst doesn’t mean it’s not worth mentioning. It’s yet another example of women existing solely for the advancement of a man’s story arc, and that’s harmful to the cultural discussion. When “quirky” or “twee” girls are only seen as an accessory to help ease existential manpain, that’s a problem.

  • Anonymous

    If you’re looking for a rom-com that gives the (female) protagonist a fully developed story line (one that’s separate from the romantic one, even) I really recommend Chalet Girl

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    Awareness of it as a trope is new—which makes sense, ’cause in the Internet era EVERYTHING gets (over)examined—but the MPDG’s been around for a while, even if she’s not been called that. Katharine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby is often considered one, as is Annie Hall. But there have been more of them lately, you’re right.

    I find the MPDG and the femme fatale equally superficial; FF offers the ability to be macho (through sex), MPDG offers the ability to be self-actualized and sensitive (by providing emotional development fodder). That reflects more a changing attitude toward masculinity than it does towards females, IMHO.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    That looks interesting. Definitely intrigued by the presence of Bill Nighy.

  • Kathleen Knack

    Ooooo, total aside:  read the books.  They deal with this “woe is me, I’m a nerd/ Magical awesome life” thing.  Turns out, he’s not the most reliable narrator of his life.

  • Anonymous

    I generally describe it as a sports movie masquerading as a romantic comedy, and it’s very nicely done. It even directly deals with sexism and class tensions (and how they can intersect) in some small, subtle ways. And the whole cast is great.

  • Jess M.

     I actually think that the FF is a little meatier than the MPDG. She often has ulterior motives and private agendas. She may help the male character act out a fantasy of masculinity but it’s usually a sham to gain his trust. The FFs in the Dark Knight Rises for example get no end of glee from using Bruce Wayne.

    MPDG never goes against what the male character’s desires unless it is to reveal something he never knew he secretly desired thus ushering along his own character growth.

    This is an interesting debate.

  • http://agentclaudia.livejournal.com thecynicalromantic

    I despise it for the exact opposite reason. I know a lot of awesome, complex, charming, friendly, nonconformist/boho/free-spirit/”quirky” women who, in addition to wearing mismatched socks or liking to go around blowing bubbles at people, have real jobs and real friendships and real hobbies and sometimes even struggle with real depression, and when people assume they are incapable of serious thought or responsible adult behavior, or think they have nothing better to do than twirl around some dude’s life teaching him about the wonder of eating ice cream before dinner, it is very insulting. (I am occasionally treated like I am expected to be some dude’s manic pixie dream girl myself, as I am a skinny white chick with pink hair and a sense of humor, but usually I am not manic enough.) So I react to stupid damsel-in-distress tropes by being like “Bored now!”, but I react to the MPDG stories more like “LEAVE MY FRIENDS ALONE D:”

  • http://agentclaudia.livejournal.com thecynicalromantic

    I think the MPDG gets so much pushback because the “alternative” type(s) of woman it is co-opting in service of a male characters story arc are precisely the women who are the least likely to give two shits about finding a man and feeding his ego IRL. Also, nobody’s ever like “Hey, *I’m* a wimpy damsel in distress, what makes you think I’ve got nothing better to do than fall in love with superheroes?” I thought Kirsten Dunst’s character in Spiderman was terrible–I’m not very familiar with the Spiderman franchise, and when I was made to watch the movie, I was literally just like “People like this? Geeky people? Like… people who *pride themselves on being smarter than everyone else* goddamn *own* this movie?” because I was so appalled at how stupid the romance was–and I thought it was bad because neither I nor any other living human woman can relate. But for women who have put up with a lot of shit and rejection for being “weird” or “alternative” or “artsy” or whatever, the “Oh look she’s so cute and wacky” condescension, combined with being reduced to some dude’s muse, is a bit more personally insulting.
    I get almost as annoyed when the term is co-opted to bludgeon well-developed female characters who aren’t perfectly mainstream, but that happens much less frequently, because face it, there aren’t that many positive, well-rounded portrayals of “alternative” women out there to misrepresent.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    Exactly! No actual weird/artsy/nerdy/whatever girl is ACTUALLY like that—it’s like taking a few bullet points of that type and just pasting them on the generic girlfriend character for more “flavor.”

    That said, though there’s a lot that’s fucked up about the basic idea of MPDG, there are movies that have done interesting things with it. (500) Days of Summer, for example—Summer is like super-mecha-MPDG, but she still wouldn’t put up Tom TREATING her like one. 

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    STOP APPROPRIATING OUR CULTURE FOR YOUR LAZY STORYTELLING NEEDS, HOLLYWOOD!

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    They’re definitely on my list… along with several hundred books, TV shows, movies… it might be a few years, but I’ll get to it!

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Great review and along the lines of the impression the trailer gave me (ex. the creepy moment when Calvin’s…brother? suggests that he can do ANYTHING with Ruby, which strongly implied rape) but I still might see it since I like the actors involved.

  • edmund520969896

    Because if he did, he’d realise that she has her own stuff to deal with and that she is a fully rounded person.”

    http://www.thetitleloansriverside.com/
     

  • http://twitter.com/Totz_the_Plaid Totz_the_Plaid

    I dunno, I thought of it as a second chance to be a better person and improve himself. I think it’d be a bummer if he ended up alone. Sure, he’s a dick, but they can’t find redemption?

    If you want a realistic ending, go watch “Annie Hall” instead. Meanwhile, I prefer escapism and a suspend-your-disbelief happy, or at least semihappy ending from a rom-com.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right that it’s more about a different view of masculinity than feminity but I think that’s half the battle of sexism. That men are beginning to have fantasies about connecting emotionnally with women is a sign of progression.

    Let’s not forget one thing though, we are talking about fantasies here. The MPDG is mostly present in movies that works, intentionnally or not, as romantic comedies for men. Compare the MPDG to the male lead of romantic comedies aimed at women, those where the actress is the bigger name (like Reese Witherspoon), and you’re not going to see that much differences. The package will look different but will be as unrealistic and convenient.

  • Anonymous

    This movie was done before, and the orginal is better. Weird Science.

    That chick that was made from no where at least had a spine.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    You have a point there. He did some bad things, but he’s not a bad person, and he does deserve a second chance.

    Still… the fact that he gets that second chance with the same person doesn’t sit well with me. Ruby doesn’t know him, but he knows her. They have an extensive history that she literally has no memory of. I know it’s meant to be cute, but it’s kinda creepy and off-putting to me. Definitely not happy ending-ish.

    He deserves a second chance at happiness, but does he deserve a second chance at happiness WITH RUBY? I don’t think so. I would’ve liked the ending more if he’d met and hit it off with some new girl. At least then their relationship would start with an ACTUAL clean slate, and Calvin would have a better chance at making it work.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    As creepy as that scene is, I actually found his brother to be most tolerable character throughout most of the film. Rapeyness aside, he’s pretty much Calvin’s voice of reason.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QQ4NKGAUADLX2BQG3KRTE7VUEA george garos

    look at the last scene again-there’s an argument to be made that its a dream sequence

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Right on. Now I have to wait for it to find Rhode Island…

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    Ooh, interesting! I didn’t catch that.

  • http://twitter.com/diefrankenmaus Kate

    I’ll chime in with my dislike of the MPDG trope. I dislike it because, honestly, It’s completely absurd. Adults (rational, functioning adults) do not behave like that. Yes, we all have quirks and can have times when we have fun and are silly, but no adults act like that 24/7. The MPDG is essentially a little girl in a woman’s body (which is, in itself, creepy). She doesn’t have a care in the world and all of her quirks are “endearing” instead of “irritating and irresponsible.”

    Honestly, even little children are held to a stricter behavioral standard than the MPDG. Think about it: A five year old makes a huge mess in the kitchen while trying to bake a cake. They’ll typically get yelled at (or at least a stern talking to) and be made to help clean up. The MPDG makes a huge mess while trying to bake a cake and it’s just so quirky! Look, she doesn’t know how to bake, but she’s trying anyway! It’s like she thinks she’s people!

    To point to this behavior and say “this is what a girlfriend should be like” is insulting and, frankly, vaguely horrifying. The MPDG isn’t a person; she’s a dancing monkey that’s there to entertain. And, unlike the monkey, you can have sex with her. Yuck. 

  • Carmen Sandiego

    This could be the case, but the writer of this script is a woman, and also the actress who plays Ruby.

  • Carmen Sandiego

     I like this trope only when it is shown for what it is.   I liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because Joel saw Clementine in MPDG and when he realized she was more complex than that, that her issues were not all adorable and charming, things fell to pieces, and it was only by seeing her as a whole person that he really ‘saw’ her.  

  • Carmen Sandiego

     Yeah, like the creep factor in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Elijah Wood’s character.  At least that was played to be creepy and called out though.

  • Carmen Sandiego

     Yeah, that scene in the trailer scared me.  Please tell me the writer didn’t write things for Ruby to do without her consent?!!!

  • Carmen Sandiego

     Eternal Sunshine showed how messed up things are though when the protagonist only wants to see the MPDG as just that, a charming whimsical quirkly lady with only adorable faults.   When Joel begins to see Clementine as a complete person is when the movie gets really good, and shows that issues aren’t just adorable things adding spice to the woman he loves…that she has an entire world he’s been gleefully ignoring.

  • http://twitter.com/RebeccaPahle Rebecca Pahle

    …not sex things.

  • Ambivalently Yours

    Thank you for this article.  This movie made me so incredibly annoyed for all of the reasons mentioned above, so I am glad that I was not the only one who wasn’t charmed by Calvin’s sad sack attitude and MPGD fantasies.  What really urkes me is that Ruby Sparks had the potential to finally call out this never ending trend of boring, undeveloped, male-gazed, characters but instead just fell into the same predictable happy-ending paradigm.  Why couldn’t you just be a little more gutsy in your writing Zoe Kazan?  Quirky girls can be gutsy too.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SAHYK44QP6BC4KZ3FVKUGYNURQ TeresaK

    If my husband’s story were told, I would come off as a total MPDG. He was all-work-and-no-play, I worked at jobs that allowed me to play and then played some more. Instead of a writer bringing us together to teach him how to relax and have fun it was his mom, who learned about me from my mom who worked with her. When we met, I honestly did feel like twirling around some dude’s life helping him to lighten up seemed like a good way to spend the one night a week I didn’t have anything regularly scheduled.

    The big difference, of course, is that I invited him into MY life as well as inserting my sparkly fun-ness into his world. The other half of the story in which the fun-loving girl slowly trades her free-wheeling ways for a minivan and two kids just wouldn’t be as fun to watch.

  • http://twitter.com/thatguykalem Callum

    I disagree with your interpretation of the film. The way I saw it, everything that happened between the point at which Calvin began writing the new book and the point at which he finished writing the new book was actually that book that he was writing. It makes perfect sense; if you watch the end sequence again, Calvin doesn’t actually know who Ruby is either. It’s not some deus ex machina ending wherein Ruby’s memory is magically erased and they all live happily ever after. Calvin writes this book about the MPDG, the majority of the film is the narrative of that book (i.e. inside Calvin’s imagination), and the ending is him meeting a girl with whom he could begin a relationship. Calvin explored his own personality through the writing of ‘The Girlfriend’, and found that even if he had the perfect girlfriend, his nature and personality was so negative and controlling that even that girl would leave him. He also learned that the perfect girlfriend couldn’t exist, anyway, because all people have idiosyncracies unique to them that have to be managed in particular ways – something that he couldn’t understand. Finally, Ruby’s comment at the finale that she didn’t want to know how the story ended meant that the entire ending to the film was ambiguous. There’s no guarantee that they’d stay together forever, and thus the film can be shown to have quite a complex narrative.

    That was my interpretation, anyway :P