Six years after Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have directed the long awaited follow-up to their debut feature, a massive critical and commercial hit. Ruby Sparks is about a writer struggling with the long awaited follow-up to his debut novel, a massive critical and commercial hit, published when he was of school age.
Paul Dano (looking a lot like 1980s James Spader in spectacles, only more dishevelled) writes on a manual Olympia De Luxe typewriter (for no apparent reason other than it looks good in big close-up), and lives a rather solitary existence, staring at blank sheets of paper in a minimalist designer house in the Hollywood Hills, or occasionally visiting his shrink (Elliott Gould) or going with his brother (Chris Messina) to the gym – until one day he types a few lines about a girl (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay) he has dreamt about, and what do you know? Ruby Sparks comes to life, seemingly unaware she’s his creation, but convinced she’s his live-in girlfriend.
Kazan ticks all the Manic Pixie Dream Girl boxes – she has droopy hair, likes to wear to floaty frocks with brightly coloured tights, is an artist, has never heard of F Scott Fitzgerald (though, curiously enough, she has heard of Humphrey Bogart), and is irrepressibly, relentlessly, maddeningly bubbly. Moreover she’s played by someone called Zoe, which is near enough to Zooey as makes no difference. (Dano and Kazan, both of whom are producers on the film, are an item in real life.)
There’s a lot of slightly tedious comedy (cue kooky couple montage set to Ça plane pour moi by Plastic Bertrand) as Dano ascertains the extent of her realness, whether or not other people can interact with her, and whether or not he can modify her behaviour via his writing. But there are also some swipes at the creative male ego that are sufficiently nifty to make you wonder if Kazan is writing from experience. And towards the end, the story ventures into some interestingly dark places, reminding us that movies about authors interacting with their fictional creations are more often horror (Seizure, The Dark Half, Secret Window) than comedy (Stranger Than Fiction), and making me wish Dayton and Faris hadn’t quite so wholeheartedly settled for the rom-com route.
But the biggest problem with the film is that the Real World and the Real Characters don’t seem grounded in reality even before we’re obliged to engage with a character might or might not be Unreal. I realise this may be because it’s set in Los Angeles aka Lala Land, which inevitably seems weird and out to lunch to outsiders such as myself. But it also has to do with characters and emotions who seem based on secondhand notions of characters and emotions, rather than on the original characters and emotions themselves. Not to mention the romanticised idea of a bestselling writer, thronged by rapt and adoring fans as he utters such pearls of wisdom as “Falling in love is an act of magic. So is writing.” and “The words are not coming from you, but through you.”
THE MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL AND HER FOREBEARS
Nathan Rabin, who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, described the stereotype 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.”
In other words, she’s a narrative device enabling the emotionally repressed male protagonist to loosen up, cast off the shackles of bourgeois respectability and live a little, and a regular feature of rom-coms or romantic dramas with a male protagonist. Oft-cited examples include Natalie Portman in Garden State, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer (see also Yes Man, Elf etc), Jennifer Aniston in Along Came Polly, Sarah Jessica Parker in LA Story. In fact, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl can be traced all the way back, via 1970s variations such as Barbra Streisand in What’s Up Doc?, to classic screwball comedies such as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.
Flavorwire’s selection of Manic Pixie Dream Girls even includes Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, though skips over the free spirited or plain crazy females characters who dragged regular guys out of their dull lives into exotic adventures in other notable yuppie nightmare movies of the 1980s - Michelle Pfeiffer in Into the Night, Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, Rosanna Arquette in After Hours, and, in an all-too-rare girl-on-girl variation, Arquette herself being led off the rails by Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Something Wild, very definitely a film of two halves, stitched together screwball comedy (the first half, with sexy Melanie Griffith enticing fuddy-duddy Jeff Daniels into playing hooky from his boring office job) with film noir (the second half, in which Daniels is revealed to be a regular smalltown girl with a menacing ex). But then screwball comedy and film noir have much in common – in both subgenres, a repressed or weak-willed male protagonist is led astray by a woman who doesn’t play by the rules, because she’s either a free spirit or a femme fatale. The only difference is that in screwball comedy the consequences are beneficial to the male, whereas in the film noir they destroy him.
What should we conclude from this? That female characters are invariably seen as catalysts for male fears and desires rather than as personalities in their own right? Nothing new in that, though I yearn to see more distaff variations of genre movies. Chinatown might have turned the femme fatale stereotype on her head, but it was still a story from the male perspective. The only film noir I can think of from a female point of view is In a Lonely Place, in which Gloria Grahame falls for cynical screenwriter Humphrey Bogart, who may or may not be a murderer… Has there ever been a screwball comedy with the sexes reversed? His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant trying to tempt Rosalind Russell away from marriage and domesticity? But Grant’s character, Walter Burns, could hardly be described as a free spirit. I Could Never Be Your Woman comes close.
Zoe Kazan, in her Ruby Sparks screenplay, drops the ball. Although she’s ostensibly using the rom-com format to analyse the way in which some men behave towards their girlfriends (at first idealising them, then wanting to control and isolate them) she’s still presenting the process of emotional growth (or lack of it) from the male perspective, with the woman, once again, as catalyst. Ruby never comes close to resembling a real woman – she’s a dream girl to the end.