Long Take: In Defense of Ruby Sparks

Viewed July 26, 2012

For months, I’d been looking forward to seeing Ruby Sparks (2012), a quirky romantic comedy by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their first film since 2006’s runaway indie success Little Miss Sunshine. But on the eve of its release, I became slightly less interested after I read a surprisingly spoiler-less interview with the film’s screenwriter and titular star Zoe Kazan. In it, not only does she dismiss the label Manic Pixie Dream Girl from any talk about her character, she also, in my opinion, makes a bone-headed argument about why the term “should die.” I can appreciate that Kazan finds the term misogynistic, that it smacks of men failing to see women (or, in this case, female film characters) as fully fledged people with rich, inner lives who shouldn’t be reduced to their tastes in music and clothes. However, it’s misguided for her to believe that because a random “blogger” (she means the film critic Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club) coined the term, it has no creative clout. Surely she must understand that critics and creatives are in constant dialogue with each other, if not explicitly, then implicitly. (She is, after all, relating her views to an entertainment reporter.) Ultimately, though, Kazan’s argument falls apart because even she acknowledges that “sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life.” Yes, that’s what Rabin lamented, too. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (herein MPDG) persists as an archetype in film production and criticism, especially on the webpages of Vulture, with whom she granted the interview, despite critics’ and audiences’ frustration with repeatedly seeing this kind of female character. (Pop culture website Flavorwire recently posted a supercut montage purporting to capture, with mock enthusiasm, 75 years of cinema’s MPDGs.)

Having now seen Ruby Sparks, I am disappointed that, when asked by Vulture if she sees Ruby as a MPDG, Kazan did not say that, yes, in fact she is one because this film is a deconstruction of this archetype and thus explores why this kind of male fantasy is not only degrading and realistically implausible but also potentially dangerous. But just what is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and how does Ruby Sparks tackle it as a subject? I’ll warn you now: there are spoilers aplenty ahead.

According to The A.V. Club’s Rabin, who first used the term to describe Kirsten Dunst’s flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2007), the MPDG is a polarizing figure, inducing film spectators to either want to marry them (for real) or murder them because they are so annoying (not for real). These happy-go-lucky, good-looking, kooky young women are never the main protagonists in films and “[exist] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” As Rabin rightly points out, Natalie Portman’s Sam in Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State (2004) neatly conforms to this supposed ideal, bouncing across the screen all carefree, her love bringing Braff’s depressive TV actor out of a personal and professional rut. Because she’s cute. And the love of a cute woman is really all you need to solve your problems.

Well, Kazan takes a different approach in her first produced screenplay, which she admits she only started writing as a vehicle for herself and her boyfriend, the actor Paul Dano, after he suggested, upon reading the first pages she produced, that it would be a good idea for them to collaborate on their own film project. In Ruby Sparks, Dano stars as the novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, a prodigious “genius” who hasn’t been able to follow up his remarkable debut from ten years ago. Spurred on by a writing task that his psychologist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) assigns him, he finally harnesses some inspiration and begins writing about a twenty-six-year-old high-school drop-out from Dayton, Ohio, who doesn’t drive. He finds all of these tiny details hopelessly romantic; I find them alarmingly sexist, as he fantasizes about a helpless girl. Calvin confesses to Dr. Rosenthal that he has fallen in love with her, which Rosenthal encourages so that his patient might finally finish a novel. Then, one day, after finding women’s intimates strewn all throughout his modern bachelor pad, Ruby (Kazan) suddenly appears in his kitchen, behaving as if they are in a serious, long-term relationship. Is this Pygmalion crazy or just plain lucky?

At first, Calvin is convinced he’s going insane. But once he realizes that other people can see her, too, he’s less concerned about his sanity, and he begins to question the ethics of the situation. Can he date his creation, a woman who has inhabited his dreams, sprung from his spilled ink? Calvin’s older brother and only friend, Harry (Chris Messina), had originally admonished him for writing a one-dimensional character, asserting that real women aren’t like Ruby Sparks because they have problems and ambitions, changing moods and opinions. They don’t exist to stroke your ego, to love you unconditionally. Harry, as a stand-in for the audience, speaks from his own experience with his wife, which has its ups and downs. He hasn’t so much settled as he has learned to compromise. This is not to say that Harry doesn’t embrace fantasy as a natural, healthy expression of desire; he wants to live vicariously through whatever sexual encounters—real or imaginary—that Calvin has to speak of. However, when he meets Ruby and helps Calvin innocuously manipulate her to comic effect, inserting Ruby’s French fluency into his little brother’s manuscript, Harry thinks Calvin is the luckiest man alive because, as her author, he can make her do anything… especially in bed. This scene is in the trailer, which, when I first saw it, rubbed me the wrong way. Harry’s sexist sense of wonder offended me to no end, but once I saw it in context, I understood that screenwriter Kazan includes his juvenile reaction to Calvin’s magical realist luck simply to subvert it. In other words, that Ruby Sparks is a film written about a man by a woman shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Calvin gets to know his Galatea before they take a dip in the pool fully clothed, a quintessential first date for Manic Pixie Dream Girls and their beaus. Image courtesy of http://www.laweekly.com.

Like (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009), Ruby Sparks is a heterosexual romance focalized through the man’s point-of-view. In both movies, the woman is a MPDG and exists as something of an enigma to the man in her life. In the earlier film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt reflects on his now-defunct relationship with a spunky co-worker played by Zooey Deschanel, an actress most associated with the controversial archetype, having appeared as a MPDG in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Garth Jennings, 2005), The Go-Getter (Martin Hynes, 2007), and Gigantic (Matt Aselton, 2008) to name but a few. (It should be noted that she stars opposite Paul Dano in Gigantic as an eccentric, mystery woman named Happy Lolly. I kid you not.) As Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen goes through his sunny memories of their time together, he sees things he never noticed before, such as early signs of Summer’s emotional withdrawal from him. Due to the fragmented, non-chronological storytelling structure ofthe film, the viewer really only knows Summer through what Tom remembers and shows us. Summer‘s scribes are two men, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and they purposely keep her at a distance, but characterizing her so that she conforms to all of the MPDG’s contours is arguably lazy writing. In an interview with Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club, screenwriter Kazan mentions that Neustadter and Weber’s keeping Summer’s interior life outside of the margins of their narrow focus partly inspired her to examine the process by which men imagine and write idealized women, making “it textual, rather than subtextual” in Ruby Sparks. Thus, in her script, there are shades of Summer in Ruby: as part of a montage, Ruby rides around on her bicycle much like Summer does, and she’s sexually adventurous, tempting Calvin into public sex with her confession on the dance floor that she took off her underwear (Summer persuades Tom to try a difficult sexual position in the shower).

Ruby is the girl of Calvin’s dreams. But why does he fantasize about someone like her? He’s looking for someone to draw him out of his shell, now that his new terrier Scotty has disappointed him so. (He had pinned all his hopes on using Scotty to meet people in the park, but he’s embarrassed that his male pooch squats to pee and wonders aloud who could like such a dog. In his dream, Ruby, of course, does, as would any mature human being.) Calvin’s an old fuddy-duddy, resistant to change. For a man of twenty-nine years, he has some strange affectations. For instance, he shuns working on a computer, opting for a typewriter instead. He appears to have rummaged through Woody Allen’s closet. And just look how at odds he is with his own environment: he lives in a sleek, modern open-plan house in the hills of Los Angeles, surrounded by white walls and wooden floors. The indoor staircase railings mimic the one leading down to the outdoor swimming pool, and vice versa. He is so socially inept that it’s as if he could never take advantage of turning his house inside out before Ruby’s magical appearance.

I am always drawn to a film’s set design, interested in how a character’s living quarters reflect his or her personality (or not) and how other personages respond to it, too, and the filmmakers behind Ruby Sparks didn’t disappoint here. Nor when Calvin begrudgingly takes Ruby to meet his mother (Annette Bening) and her lover (Antonio Banderas) in Big Sur. Gertrude and Mort live in a kind of Eden, a sprawling estate overtaken by all types of vegetation and built with recycled materials. Mort, a sculptor who works with wood, has designed the house himself, much to Gertrude’s delight. Ruby gets along with everyone attendant for the weekend, but Calvin retreats to the tree-house and seems withdrawn during dinner. He treats the hosts’ shared lifestyle with contempt because he sees his mother’s radical change from preppy subservient housewife to outspoken hippie artist as a betrayal against his deceased father. He refuses to see how happy his mother is. As a man literally in control of his girlfriend’s actions and emotions, it’s safe to assume he just doesn’t care.

Ruby Sparks takes a dark turn after the improbable lovers’ Big Sur getaway. Ruby asks for more space between them, to which he reluctantly agrees. Missing her on nights that she spends at an art class or with friends, Calvin breaks his own rule and begins rewriting her. First, he casts her as “miserable without him,” but when her clinginess proves too depressing, too suffocating, he adds another line that puts her in a constant state of ecstatic joy, which is unbearable, too. Eventually, he writes for her to be herself, to act and feel as she would on her own. Later, at a book party, the lecherous author Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, typecast again!), who is also Calvin’s mentor, hits on Ruby and talks her into stripping down to her underwear and getting in the pool. Catching her before she dipped her toe in the water, Calvin blows up. At home, he reveals that he can control her with his printed words. The fight that ensues is truly upsetting, as Calvin maniacally sits at his desk, pounding away humiliating scenarios that Ruby has no choice but to act out. The ominous score, as if plucked from a super-serious sci-fi picture and thus so out of place in a romantic comedy, melodramatically highlights the torture of this scene. It’s in this moment that, if you have not already begun to dislike Calvin’s manipulative mean-streak, then you might totally turn against him. Ruby is no longer his creation or a MPDG; by the time this scene rolls around, you sympathize with her and what she is going through. When the bombast finally settles, she locks herself in his room, and he rewrites the ending, releasing her from his influence and his life. I was so worried that something magical would happen overnight and she would instead choose to stay with him because she loves him. I was relieved that in the morning, Calvin awoke to find her gone.

The film inches toward its conclusion as Calvin buys a computer and begins work on a novel based on his magical realist romance with Ruby, published to great success as The Girlfriend. He returns to Dr. Rosenthal and pleads with the doctor to understand that he doesn’t need to believe his nutty story and that he, Calvin, doesn’t need to comprehend how it happened in order to move on with his life. At first, what happens next, in the last scene, ruined the film for me. Like Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, I argue that “Kazan winds up indulging in the very wish-fulfillment she initially sets out to deconstruct” when, walking in the park with Scotty, Calvin bumps into a young woman who is Ruby’s spitting image. She’s ditzy like her, wondering aloud how she might know him since he looks strangely familiar; after listening to her wishy washy evaluation of The Girlfriend, which she is reading when Scotty runs over to her, he opens the back of the hardcover book and points to his picture on the flap. Palm-face! They hit it off, and we’re meant to believe that they have a future together.

Calvin meets a girl who uncannily resembles his creation Ruby Sparks. Image courtesy of http://www.vulture.com.

This is the wrong ending to an otherwise acute examination of fantasy, control, and wish-fulfillment. For starters, Calvin isn’t deserving of a woman’s love. Not yet. He hasn’t fully redeemed himself, in my eyes, after constricting Ruby’s independence. He may have let her go because he loves her, but he may easily have done so because their relationship was no longer tenable. Writing The Girlfriend barely atones for his maltreatment of Ruby; he’s still using her for inspiration and is now actually profiting from it. Plus, this conclusion bears too close a resemblance to the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). In it, the one-time lovers Jim Carrey and MPDG Kate Winslet independently undergo a procedure that erases his or her memories of the other. In the end, however, they meet again as new strangers, and we’re led to believe that they’re both fated to be together and to repeatedly break each other’s heart. I’m sure that Hornaday had Eternal Sunshine in mind when she griped that Kazan isn’t brave enough to follow through with her otherwise biting critique. Funnily enough, though, Calvin’s new romance with a Ruby lookalike also echoes the ending of (500) Days of Summer. At the close of that film, Tom has finally gotten over Summer and meets an attractive, interested brunette at a job interview. Sure, she doesn’t look like Summer, but her name is Autumn, representative of a new cyclical beginning.

In fact, the more I thought about the last scene of Ruby Sparks, the more I became convinced that Kazan is really hinting that a union sprouts between Calvin and the Ruby lookalike along the lines of the one in Summer rather than a reconciliation between Calvin and Ruby, her memory of him swiped clean because of his last words about her. Specifically, there is some ambiguity as to whether Calvin and Ruby’s love story ever happened to begin with. Calvin’s conviction that he doesn’t need his psychologist to understand that it was real to him or necessarily comprehend how it could have ever possibly occurred suggests Calvin is either in denial, crazy, or imaginative. I like to think it’s the last option, for The Girlfriend represents the novelization of the film story we have, until that moment, seen unfold on-screen. In this way, it’s possible that Calvin’s relationship with Ruby as we have seen it is actually confined to the page. The fact that the redhead in the park never introduces herself—and certainly not as Ruby—encourages the interpretation that she is someone new a la Autumn from (500) Days of Summer. Contrary to what we’re initially led to believe, Calvin’s only just met in the flesh the girl of his dreams/book. While this reading of the end is ultimately more satisfying than my first reactions, it’s still problematic because it means that his immature fantasy comes true after all. This mystery woman stuns Calvin when she says that she likes Scotty just as he is, neutered urinating position and all. Really, Calvin? That remains a sticking point with you? Your dream girl must not only look and act like the Ruby of your book, she must also shower affection on the dog you’re so ashamed to own?

David Edelstein of New York rejects Ruby Sparks on the grounds that it’s merely “a thesis film, with one joke and one variation” (he’s referring to Gertrude’s happy co-dependence with Mort here). First of all, Stephen Holden of The New York Times definitely disagrees, cooing as he does about how the film is “a sleek, beautifully written and acted romantic comedy that glides down to earth in a gently satisfying soft landing.” But I have to ask, what’s wrong with a thesis film? Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining and emotionally and intellectually involving. It is more than, in Edelstein’s words, “a fairly engaging parable about the crap men project on their wives and girlfriends, the sort of controlling fantasies that wreak havoc on a woman’s sense of self.” It is a necessary deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a woman-powered corrective to the prevalent on-screen desire for, as Harry puts it in the movie, “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing [and who] are not real.” More than this, Calvin’s experience with Ruby demonstrates how such a dream girl becoming a real-life partner is not only an unsustainable situation but ultimately an undesirable one, too (he may not tire of her completely, but at least he recognizes that her resistance to his power makes him unfit to be with her and that’s why he lets her go). You should want a real person, not an archetype or fantasy. Ruby Sparks is about how, when your wildest dreams come true, your reality and fantasy lives become unfulfilling.

When Nick Pinkerton writes in LA Weekly that Ruby Sparks “aspires to” “the sort of middle-of-the-road, battle-of-the-sexes comic fantasy” that is Nancy Meyers’s What Women Want (2000), in which a sexist pig played by none other than Mel Gibson miraculously gains access to women’s unexpressed thoughts, it’s clear that he, like Edelstein, has failed to grasp Kazan’s message. Is this because these critics, but perhaps men in general, may not like being told that even fantasizing about a one-dimensional woman who represents a panacea to all their problems is wrong, especially when they probably are mature enough to never really want such a woman? I couldn’t help sensing Edelstein’s and Pinkerton’s underlying sexism when they each referred to the four-year relationship screenwriter and star Kazan shares with leading man Paul Dano. Edelstein begins his review describing Ruby Sparks as “Written by actress Zoe Kazan for her and her boyfriend, Paul Dano…,” circumstances which suggest that it was all the more easy for him to brush the movie off as “not a great movie.” (Remember, he called it a “thesis film.”) Pinkerton is worse, coming across as skeptical of Kazan and Dano’s off-screen connection when he writes that they are “apparently ‘romantically linked.'” It should be added, too, that he thinks that, since Kazan wrote the script, which he accuses of having “missed opportunities and withholdings,” it “begs interpretation as a frustrated actress’ commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women—that is, for maximum convenience.” The first missed opportunity he mentions? Potentially hilarious sex scenes. This reminds me of directors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’s grumbling that (older) male critics just couldn’t understand and appreciate their newest film, Lola Versus (2012), about a young woman confronting her messy life.

It’s true that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s direction isn’t anything to write home about. I can agree with Edelstein and Pinkerton on that front. But are the expectations that the whiz kids behind Little Miss Sunshine will deliver a masterpiece too damn high for some? I prefer Ruby Sparks to that not-so-original comedic family melodrama. I like to think that Calvin’s struggle to pen another book in the same league as his stunning debut imitates Dayton and Faris’s attempt to avoid a sophomore slump. Apparently, they’re really picky when choosing projects and love working with first-time screenwriters. So take that!

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