We begin Helen’s watchlist with the 2012 film Ruby Sparks! Is it the defining satire of the so called “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope”? or victim to its offensiveness? Is it even a good movie about writing?
Since I wasn’t able to make this episode, I’ll chime in with my take: I didn’t dislike the movie nearly as much as Anthony or Helen. I think it was a pretty average, occasionally funny movie that is elevated a head above the rest by at least attempting to say something unique about a too-common movie trope at the time: the manic pixie dream girl, or, more specifically, the type of guys who dream of the manic pixie girl. How would this actually pan out for these guys if the dream became real? What would it reveal about them?
I always appreciate movies that are able to pull off a clearly unlikeable character as the lead, and I think Paul Dano performed this character really well. We aren’t supposed to like Calvin or think he’s a good guy. He’s clearly toxic. And we’re not supposed to take his “romance” (mental masturbation?) with Ruby as completely charming or completely reprehensible. Calvin is a pretty typical insecure dude, and a pretty typical insecure dude would absolutely take advantage of this magical situation, and this is what is scary about the film.
The manic pixie dream girl appeals to men who are internally empty, who lack any ability to create meaning or excitement in their own lives, so, instead, dream of a girl who is naturally bursting with excitement and spontaneity who can perfectly fill their void. But she is also awkward and child-like, allowing the guy to maintain his feeling of social superiority and not trigger any of his many insecurities. It’s the perfect combo for this kind of guy. But, of course, this kind of girl does not exist in the real world, but instead manifests as one of the many versions of Ruby throughout the movie: if she is spontaneous, she is also too extroverted and socially independent for him, and leaves him feeling just as jealous and lonely as he was without her. If she is childlike and awkward, she is also clingy and dependent, which is too much for Calvin to handle. In other words, she isn’t exactly the way he wants her to be. No one is. Humans are messy, and that’s what he can’t face.
His brother character is there as a deceptive foil to Calvin: seeing the brother’s over-the-top toxicity might tempt us to think Calvin is supposed to be the “nice guy” but, as his controlling, narcissistic, codependent behavior begins to show, we aren’t able to maintain that illusion. His experiment reveals himself to himself, and I think (SPOILERS AHEAD) we are supposed to believe that he truly does learn a lesson when he lets Ruby go, and that the meet-cute in the last scene may be a real chance at a fresh start for these two people. Or perhaps it would’ve been more interesting if Calvin would’ve chosen to not talk to Ruby (not wanting to spoil her new personhood), or if Ruby had rejected Calvin in the last scene so we could see how his new self would deal with that.
If you read too much into the movie, or expect detailed explanations for why a typewriter could manifest a person, you’ll be disappointed. This is magical realism: the magic is only there to move the plot along and tell the story the writer wants to tell. Maybe the tone could have been clearer or they could’ve leaned harder into the satire, but, on the other hand, it is a character study at its core, and going wild with genre would have distracted from the central point. So maybe all it lacked was a few more scenes to flesh out Calvin a bit more. Go into this movie expecting a super-deep, perfectly consistent genre masterpiece, and you will be disappointed. Go into this movie expecting another average, bland, mindless rom-com, and you will appreciate it for going above and beyond. Hence, a 6/10.
Synopsis for Ruby Sparks
Young author Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), once a literary darling, is having trouble composing his next novel. Following a therapist’s advice, Calvin pulls out an old manual typewriter and creates a vivacious, flame-haired woman he dubs Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Overnight, Ruby leaps from the page into Calvin’s home as a real flesh-and-blood woman. And, what’s more, she’s unaware that she’s actually a fictional character and that her actions and feelings are dictated by whatever Calvin writes.
Anthony: What did you think of Ruby Sparks?
Helen: I’m baffled by this movie. Initially watching it, I didn’t like it. I was annoyed by it. I was frustrated by it. I went in kind of expecting not to like it, and then I read about it after it was over, and then I felt extremely guilty and ashamed that I didn’t like it because I didn’t realize it was written by the lead actress. And yeah that just broke my brain completely. I was like, wait, I need to give this a whole other chance. I need to reevaluate everything I think about this. Maybe I was being too judgmental. Maybe I was missing some of the satire that was there. Because it didn’t feel enough like a satire to me. And so now I’m just stuck. I don’t know how I’m gonna rate this thing. We’re just gonna have to talk it out. I just feel completely cornered by this film.
Anthony: Yeah, that is an interesting point. We watched it together and I think there was a couple parts where I was like, “This is totally written by a dude,” just because it was how you’re saying: the tone never made it obvious that it was dissecting or criticizing this thing, and there was never, at least in my perspective, a moment of actual growth for any of the characters…