It is frustrating how close Ruby Sparks comes to being a good film. It feels like a project that was designed to make a statement, but by the time the final product reached the screen the statement was so diluted that it became exactly the sort of film that it seems like it initially tried to critique. Similar to the terrific 2006 comedy/drama Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster), Ruby Sparks explores the idea of freewill through the intriguing concept that a real human could be the creation of a novelist. In Ruby Sparks the writer is Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), whose ideal woman becomes a reality in the form of Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan who also wrote the film). Both films are thankfully not concerned with dull plotting about why such an event has taken place, but instead focus on the resulting drama, provide gags and explore ethical questions about what would happen if one person completely held the fate of another in their hands.
What makes Ruby Sparks so promising is that it is directly challenging the Manic Pixie Dream Girl construct that critic Nathan Rabin identified in his 2007 article on the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown:
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.
There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of a quirky and exciting female character who only exists to facilitate the aspirations of men, but Rabin identified a particular trend in American cinema over the last decade that framed itself as independent and an alternative to Hollywood. Many other cultural critics have since picked up on the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, including Anita Sarkeesian who explored the issue in her Tropes vs. Women: #1 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl video where she concludes the such characters have little of their own purpose or autonomy:
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is really a muse who exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man.
In other words, they are stereotyped and two-dimensional female characters so that sensitive indi boys and hipsters don’t miss out on objectifying women.
As the tormented writer Calvin, Dano perfectly embodies the kind of young man who the Manic Pixie Dream Girl appeals to. He achieved success early in life and is now struggling to write again and live up to his public persona as a genius, which he hates being called. He is also broken hearted and one of the strengths of the film is the slow reveal that his obsessiveness and controlling nature had more to do with his breakup rather than the imagined sins he projects onto his ex-girlfriend. Enter Ruby, who is quirky, has cute and endearing problems with life, is very sexual, loves Calvin completely and most importantly inspires him to live life again. Although in a curious twist she doesn’t inspire him to write, but is instead the result of his inspiration.
Ruby is literally a construct of Calvin’s tortured sensitive imagination, which allows the film to flirt with the potential of critiquing male wish fulfilment in the form of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which Ruby conforms to wholeheartedly. The problem is that every time the film comes close to portraying the sinister side of such a scenario and the possibility that Calvin could become manipulative and even abusive, it pulls its punches at the last moment. The film becomes too enamoured with Calvin, the central romance story and the film’s overall whimsy and cuteness. Calvin is let off the hook far too many times and any pathos is put in the background to broader humour, such as when Calvin and Ruby visit Calvin’s mother in a sequence that feels more like something out of Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach, 2004).
Ruby Sparks wants to wag its finger at the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal while still having lots of fun with the Ruby character and pouring out a lot of sympathy towards poor old troubled Calvin. This is a film with so much potential, but instead of fully committing to the moments where it seems to be challenging the representation of women in many indi films, it opts for a montage of Calvin and Ruby seeing zombie movies, going to a fun fair and then going to a dance party where she tells him she’s taken her underwear off. Rather than being Stranger Than Fiction with insightful gender politics, Ruby Sparks is more a hipster Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985).