Calvin (Paul Dano), an author who hit the big time with a masterpiece at the wee age of 19 only to now, as he must, succumb to “second album syndrome”, finds his brother Harry (Chris Messina) reading his latest work. It features a fetching young lass, a Ruby Sparks, who keeps appearing in Calvin’s dreams. Harry is pleased his brother is writing again but is suspicious of this Ruby Sparks character he has created. Why, Calvin wonders. “Because quirky messy women whose problems only make them endearing,” Harry explains, “are not real.”Ah, and thus the common protestation leveled at (caution! caution! danger! danger! overused phrase ahead!) The Manic Pixie Dream Girl emerges. Except Ruby Sparks, written by Zoe Kazan who turns around to play Ruby Sparks herself in the film, does not merely employ the MPDG as a shorthand. Instead it an exploration of the term.
Nathan Rabin of The AV Club coined this divisive term and in doing so wrote: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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.” Ruby Sparks asks what if The Manic Pixie Dream Girl did not exist solely in the imagination? What if one day Calvin, a brooding soulful young man, awoke to realize that the quirky messy woman whose problems only make her endearing was alive and well and scrambling eggs in his kitchen? Would she assist him in embracing life? Or would her problems eventually stop be endearing? Or would it be revealed that her problems themselves are not what make her endearing, but the fact that she has problems like him and that those problems themselves are real and he must be open to dealing with his and hers?
Well, at first when Calvin realizes Ruby is scrambling eggs in his kitchen he assumes he is still dreaming. He takes her out into the real world. Other people see her. He brings skeptical Harry over to meet her. He sees her. She’s real, all right. So Harry pre-supposes that if his brother manifested this girl with his mind, he can get her to do anything he wants by writing it. They test the theory. They prove it accurate.
At this point the film could have easily morphed into something twisted, Calvin playing Dr. Frankenstein to his feminine Monster of whimsy and colored tights. But the MPDG’s roots are in the rom com and so Ruby Sparks, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine, is content to keep it on the mostly sunny side of the street. The film also thankfully chooses to embrace its mystical quality and so once it is established that Ruby truly subsists it sets aside the “how?” to instead question the “what now?” Calvin decides to set aside his emerging second novel and stops authoring her every action, thereby granting Ruby free will. But free will brings with it the prospect of a real relationship. If so, can Calvin adjust and accept its fate?
Paul Dano is more or less perfect for the part of Calvin on account that he is a young man who can appear soulful while brooding and Zoe Kazan compellingly slips into whatever attribute Calvin writes for her without ceasing to be the same person at the core. The supporting characters, however, like Steve Coogan’s slimy author and Calvin’s non-comformist mother and step-father (Anette Bening and Antonio Banderas) appear to have trucked in from one of those rom coms Ruby Sparks is critiquing. And aside from random moments the story never quite breaks free from its experimental nature, it never analyzes and emotes such as in the manner of the far superior Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Even so, it is an amusing ride, particularly for those (like me) who spend too much time considering and/or defending this cinematic trope. And, in the end – that is, the last scene – Ruby Sparks seems to argue that while wish fulfillment can be a dangerous thing, a wish – just a plain old wish – is still a human being’s fundamental right. Maybe that wish will come true, maybe it won’t, but if it does where it goes from there is entirely up to us.
In other words, Meet Cutes are here to say. So is the MPDG. She’s present, she’s effervescent, get used to it.