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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Ruby Sparks (review)

Ruby Sparks yellow light Paul Dano

I’m “biast” (pro): love Paul Dano

I’m “biast” (con): didn’t love the trailer, getting really tired of Manic Pixie Dream Girls

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has seen many odious incarnations. Oh, not the girls themselves: you simply cannot hate them, they’re so cute and charming and quirky and funny and all-around loveably huggable and just so perfect. *squee* But you can hate the trope, which reduces women to paragons of helpful supportive adorableness who exist only to guide men through their essential life’s journeys. And I do hate the trope, which denies women their full fucked-up humanity and a need for their own journeys toward betterment or wisdom.

Basically, until there are an equal number of Manic Pixie Dream Guys, I will keep complaining about this. Fantasy lovers who teach you Important Stuff about life, the universe, and everything and make you a better person and then disappear into the ether are awesome (well, except maybe for the disappearing part). It’s the fact that The Movies can imagine only fantasy women lovers for men that is the problem. The only Manic Pixie Dream Guy I can think of is Jake Weber’s Joe, the husband of psychic cop consultant Allison Dubois of TV’s Medium… and he’s stretching the definition, because while he’s adorable and supportive, he’s pretty cranky and he’s always around all the time, unlike love-’em-and-leave-’em MPDGs. Oh, and maybe — maybeTitanic’s Jack Dawson. But he only left because he died.

Ruby Sparks, the eponymous MPDG here, may be the most odious of the lot. Oh, not Ruby herself, of course: Ruby is cute and funny and speaks French and forgets to pay the bills. (I don’t know how forgetting to pay the bills is intended to contribute to her adorableness, unless feminine incompetence is supposed to be cute — damn, it probably is supposed to be cute, isn’t it? Fuck.) Ruby is odious because she is quite literally novelist Calvin’s dream girl: he wrote her as part of a creative exercise only to find to wake up the next morning to find her making breakfast in his shirt over her underwear, which everyone knows is totes adorbs. Ruby is odious because, unlike all the other MPDGs, she is a not-real woman, so we cannot even console ourselves with the notion that she has her own independent existence apart from Calvin.

This is intended, perhaps, to be satirical, the idea that an adult man — Calvin is meant to be around 30 — has to invent a dream girl to satisfy his needs, something an actual flesh-and-blood woman is apparently unable to do. Ruby Sparks was written, after all, by Zoe Kazan (It’s Complicated, Me and Orson Welles) who stars as Ruby and is, in real life, the romantic partner of her costar, Paul Dano (Cowboys & Aliens, Knight and Day). (It’s directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.) But there is no woman’s perspective on what has become a tedious cliché of movie stories about men. My god, how amazing might this story have been if it had been presented from Ruby’s viewpoint! How does she feel about being idolized? How uncomfortable is that precarious pedestal upon which she’s been placed?

But that’s not what’s happening here! This is barely distinguishable from other similar tales of young men who need a schooling in the realities of not being a selfish jerk, with one glaring exception: unlike those other stories, this one is all about teaching Calvin that — spoiler! — women are people. How pathetic is that? How is it that we should be expected to see it as charming and sweet and funny and nice that a grown man doesn’t already know this?

The hell of Ruby Sparks is that Dano is indeed charming and funny, even though his Calvin is drearily self-absorbed and self-pitying, a supposedly “genius” author who’s been obsessing over his writer’s block for years and in general seems to be living a really comfortable privileged life that it’s impossible to see in any bad way. (The other message of Ruby Sparks, apart from “Women are people,” is “Life in really really pleasant in Southern California if you’re rich.” Gee whiz, who’da thunk?) The whole cast is charming and funny, including Chris Messina (Like Crazy, The Night Chronicles: Devil) as Calvin’s wiser brother, and Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right, The Women) and Antonio Banderas (Haywire, Black Gold) as his mother and stepfather. And Kazan as Ruby. It’s so hard to hate them that I feel like a real heel complaining about their movie at all.

But the fact remains: The underlying gist of Ruby Sparks is appalling, that it should be seen as a revelation by anyone over the age of 12 that controlling a romantic partner is no fun, as Calvin learns when he asserts his creative control over the invention of Ruby, or that women have a need for an existence apart from the men they love. It’s not even like Calvin suffers any negative consequences of his experience with Ruby: we’re meant to infer that he gains awesome new insights into humanity that break his writer’s block and lead him to a new book that reinforces his public reputation as a genius. And we have no idea how he will cope with relationships with real women. “Ruby loves giving blow jobs!” Calvin is delighted to inform his brother. What will he do if he falls in love with a real woman who doesn’t enjoy catering to his every desire? We haven’t a clue.

I despair that the big reveals of Ruby Sparks aren’t givens from the outset. We won’t ever get truly smart movies about love and romance and sex until we start with, not end with, the radical idea that women are real.

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Ruby Sparks (2012)
US/Can release: Jul 25 2012
UK/Ire release: Oct 12 2012

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated MPDG (contains Manic Pixie Dream Girl)
MPAA: rated R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language and soft drug use)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    I don’t think MPDGuys would make it any better, really – the gender bias would be reversed, sure, but the story would still be about a person being changed by a “relationship” with an unalterable thing, not about two people having a relationship. Seeing people as not-people may arise from a sexist philosophy, but it is its own distinct problem.

    As I think about it, the best solution I can come up with is to write romances from both sides – show the uncertainties of both the people involved, rather than choosing one as the protagonist and the other as the puzzle to be solved to get the reward.

  • Hmm… I guess I enjoyed it more than you, though I understand your despair at yet one more MPDG.  Yet Kazan was trying to make a point about these MPDG movies, and that’s what I loved about the movie.  SPOILERS FOLLOW.

    It’s not a revelation to the audience that nothing good can come from controlling another human, but it is a revelation to Calvin, and that’s your movie.  Calvin is not someone we admire.  We see his faults and we see how they have truly messed up his life.  The surface life he leads in California may have surface appeal, but his inner life is so emotionally stunted that he is miserable.

    And Ruby DOES have an inner life separate from Calvin.  It is this realization that makes him even more controlling, and that leads to Ruby being miserable in her emotional prison.  That Calvin eventually comes to realize what an immature person he’s being is what Kazan brings to the trope of the man-child movie.  He can’t continue treating women the way he’s been treating them if he wants to be successful and happy.

    Kazan took the MPDG concept and upended it, showing that the fact that men find this concept adorable is not enough for women to be satisfied emotionally.  

  • And Ruby DOES have an inner life separate from Calvin.

    SPOILER: She ceases to exist as soon as Calvin stops writing her. This is not a life seperate from Calvin.

    but it is a revelation to Calvin, and that’s your movie.

    But it’s not a particularly interesting movie. It’s as if someone made a movie about a character who discovers, at the end, that the sky is blue. We would be derisive of such a story. What does this have to say to the rest of us? How is it interesting to the rest of us?

    Kazan took the MPDG concept and upended it, showing that the fact
    that men find this concept adorable is not enough for women to be
    satisfied emotionally.

    If the story had been from Ruby’s perspective (and told well), that might be true. As it is, Ruby is not a real woman. She is the creation of a man who knows little about women. If anything, the story shows that Calvin is not satisfied emotionally by a woman he can control so intimately.

  • If there were lots of MPD guys, it would be easier to dismiss these characters, in the aggregate, as mere fantasy. But the aggregate right now is that women are fantasy characters for men, but never vice versa.

  • LondonFilmFan

    I feel like you missed the point here.  The film is about why relationships fail and the insecurities suffered by people within them. It’s as much representational as it is explicit.  That no matter how Calvin tries to change HER, Ruby refuses to be anyone other than who she is.  His manipulation backfires and it’s not until he faces his own inner conflicts that he can possibly feel secure enough with a partner.  Calvin is a deeply flawed character, but he’s never portrayed as a bad person.  His self-doubt is what eats at him and ruins his chances at happiness and this is what he comes to terms with by the end of the film.  What you’re taking the film to be about is actually the symptoms of what is at the heart of the matter.  It’s not about him controlling Ruby, it’s about why he tries to control her, why he has writer’s block, and why he cannot be in a successful relationship.  The film answers those questions as Calvin himself realises the answers.  His character has to break down before he can find redemption and a way forward. 

  • FunWithHeadlines

    Well, yes, Ruby ceases to exist outside of Calvin in one way, but she does start acting on inner interests that do not coincide with Calvin’s interests. That’s when Calvin gets jealous and writes her back into his life again. She DID do things that he wasn’t writing (or that he even wanted).

    It was Ruby’s sefl-discovery that I loved. She starts out as his simple idea, but she grows until he writes her back.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, yes, Ruby ceases to exist outside of Calvin in one way, but she does start acting on inner interests that do not coincide with Calvin’s interests. That’s when Calvin gets jealous and writes her back into his life again. She DID do things that he wasn’t writing (or that he even wanted).

    This makes it sound like a meditation on writing, on how a writer’s characters can come alive and get away from the writer. If that’s what was intended, then why all the stuff about how relationship-inept Calvin is? That’s a completely different story.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    The film is about why relationships fail and the insecurities suffered by people within them. It’s as much representational as it is explicit.  That no matter how Calvin tries to change HER, Ruby refuses to be anyone other than who she is.  

    If this the intent, then why make Ruby a literal MPDG? Doesn’t the conceit that Ruby is a creation of Calvin’s get in the way of that story? Wouldn’t that story be better served if Ruby were a real person, not just a vehicle for Calvin’s “growth”?

  • Actually, it’s a movie that Kazan wrote that is about how, as an actor, she is forced into taking the actions that a writer puts on paper.  The relationship is a vehicle to explore these ideas, but this is NOT a movie about a relationship.  I mean, it is on the surface sure, but this is actually a movie about ideas of control and free will.

  • Dwa

    Actually, if this movie is about failing relationships and insecurities of people within them, making Ruby a real person could IMO get more in the way of that story than making her a MPDG and potentially lessen what could be a very accurate and interesting exploration of character differences, strengths and weaknesses. In the real world people of different character are forced to choose to engage or not in various levels of stressful / crisis / confrontational scenarios. These may be in medical crisis situations as er doctors, business people making decisions with massive financial ramifications, or individuals having to risk simple but potentially devastating personal rejection in taking the risk of entering into a relationship. The interesting thing is that some people have a nature of confidence and security that leads them to live for, thrive in and even rush into these crisis / high risk situations and if they have the right skills produce amazing results. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people that are so cautious, insecure and fearing of failure that they will completely avoid entering the risky or potentially failing situation at most any cost. (and of course many shades of gray in between). I have certainly seen people in real life that have so much insecurity that they are completely unwilling to even risk stepping into a real situation. If this is the the concept of the movie, making Ruby a literal MPDG is necessary to illustrate this and the most accurate way of crafting the story, showing the extent of a character’s self doubt and struggle and the potential change and growth they can undergo. I don’t know if This is what the movie is actually about but film fan’s scenario rings very true and is a dead ringer for many real life situations I see in my family and colleagues. Makes me want to see it. Then again, Headlines further down the thread says it’s about control and free will

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Relationships require two, independent people, each with personal agency. A failed relationship doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The MPDG trope doesn’t work in a story about relationships because the MPDG doesn’t actually have agency. She can’t do anything except “fix” the protagonist.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Then why is it Calvin’s story and not Ruby’s?

  • Dwa

    Ultimately this potential story is about character. It is expressed in the setting of a relationship but the story is about character

  • Bingo.

  • The film is about why relationships fail and the insecurities suffered by people within them.

    They don’t have a relationship. Calvin has a fantasy.

    I like your idea for a movie, but it would need to be about two actual, you know, *people.*

  • if this movie is about failing relationships and insecurities of people
    within them, making Ruby a real person could IMO get more in the way of
    that story than making her a MPDG

    Flip that around so that the guy is fantastical and the woman a ball of insecurities. Would anyone be making all these justifications for the story as it is? Would it be considered to have a universal application to all relationships?

  • Yeah, it’s about *him* as a character.

  • Ide Cyan

    Yeah. One rare example: Drop Dead Fred.

  • bronxbee

    and Johnny Depp’s “Benny and June”… he’s the manic pixie boy…

  • FunWithHeadline

    Because that has been Kazan’s experience as an actor. It is always someone else’s story that she has to perform for.

    So in this script she starts out with her experience, and then she shows that Ruby has more inside her than writers realize.

  • Danielm80

    I think the Eleventh Doctor qualifies as a Manic Pixie Dream Guy.

  • If you’re looking for an example of manic pixie dream boys, it could be argued that Mark Duplass’ character in Safety Not Guaranteed counts…

  •  And Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character in (500) days of Summer, he was a bit more demure, but he still taught Zooey Deschanel how to love.

  • Dwa

    If the intent of the story is to explore the insecurity, fear of failure, lack of confidence of character that good and talented people in the real world have to the point of avoidance of entering activities/events/relationships with people that are real and fully realized ….and your criticism of the story is that the activities that the character enters into are not real, fully realized activities/events/people…..then, yes, I believe this discussion would be taking place.

    If the intent of a well crafted, thought out and acted story was to explore the insecurity of character of a woman that was severe enough that she would avoid entering into real relationships and instead spend her time thinking or interacting with her fictional idealized man, …and your criticism was that her fictional idealized man was not a fully realized, real flesh and blood person with his own journey, then yes, I think this discussion would be taking place.

    If the intent of a story is to explore the lack of security of character that a talented capable med student has to the point that with all that student’s success in academics / simulations, they have a fear of failure /hurting someone/ being sued to the point of not entering into real practice with real people and can only enter into simulated experiences….and your criticism of the story is that the student/resident’s practice is not fully realized..then yes, I think this discussion
    would be taking place.

  • Ide Cyan

    That entire movie is disqualified for being from JGL’s character’s POV.

  • LaSargenta

     Yeah, I briefly thought about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but dismissed it ’cause of that and that the Manic Male Pixie saves himself. (Virginia Mayo’s character really needed a hero, not a pixie, which he became by the end of the movie.)

  • Great review! Finally I found someone who sees the big problem in this movie.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek


    She doesn’t cease to exist when Calvin stops writing her, though, does she?  When he slacks off on his writing, she starts behaving in unpredictable ways, when he finishes his novel entirely she leaves him and develops an entirely independent personality, to the extent where – in the last scene – she doesn’t remember him at all.
    I thought this movie worked well as a critique of the MPDG trope, and had the guts to take it to some genuinely unpleasant places – Calvin’s grin as he realises how much he can rewrite Ruby’s behaviour is genuinely chilling.  I enjoyed the way Kazan’s script kept placing Calvin and Ruby next to genuine, complicated, human couples and showing how Calvin couldn’t cope with them; his disdain towards his mother for changing after she met Mort was a viciously well-observed moment.

    You might well say “women are people too” and “relationships need compromise” are obvious lessons, and to us it seems they are, but a lot of people sadly live their lives as if these things aren’t true, and certainly a lot of otherwise decent people have no problem enjoying movies where women have no purpose other than reminding the audience the hero isn’t gay.  So it seems to be worth saying them once again.

  • cal

    I didn’t totally hate it, but I would have preferred the last scene had been omitted. I knew it was coming, but wish it hadn’t been there, as I thought Dano’s character really, really didn’t deserve any kid of redemption beyond what he got from his book sales, which was bad enough.

    It’s kind of weird that Kazan wrote it, but not from her own character’s point of view.  If only we could escape the conditioning that every tale worth viewing by a general audience must be seen the the male gaze.

  • No, he doesn’t, because he’s the protagonist.

  • Deschanel is the MPDG.

  • That is not the movie we see here. It is emphatically NOT about Ruby.

  • She doesn’t cease to exist when Calvin stops writing her, though, does she?

    A novel doesn’t stop being a project that a writer is working on the moment a writer takes a break from actually sitting in front of the typewriter (or computer). When Calvin stopped Ruby as a project, when it was finished in his mind, she ceased to exist.

    So it seems to be worth saying them once again.

    Except what other movies are saying “women are people”? Instead (from Hollywood, at least) we are bombarded with movies that simply do not treat women as people. The solution to that is NOT to make a movie featuring a woman who is not a person and have the protagonist come to the realization that women are people. The solution is to make movies about women who are people.

  • I haven’t seen that film yet. I look forward to it.

  • That last scene is also a problem because the implication is that Dano’s character has “learned his lesson,” so to speak, about women, but we have no real evidence that he will be able to carry on an actual relationship with an actual real woman.

  • Taisie

    Kind of true–she seems to be searching for meaning and quirky adventures, which he seems to provide. And he does stupid things which are presented as adorable.

    But why does the girl end up helping the guy with his time machine, to fix his personal problem with fate? Her magazine stuff seems to become pretty secondary to helping the quirky dude resolve his quirky issue.

  • SUPER SPOILERS for Safety Not Guaranteed.

    I get your point, Taisie, but he does say right at the end that the mission is about solving her problem now (because his is apparently ‘fixed’ – not quite sure what to make of that)…So he’s enabling her to go back in time, rather than the other way around.

  • True, but she only got the Manic and Girl. It’s JGL who brings the Pixie and Dream.

  • thespiral

    This is exactly what bothered me about the ending.  Dano’s character is a self-absorbed arsehole to everyone around him, including his family. He’s controlling and borderline abusive to Ruby just because he can be (any decent person who actually loved her, realizing she had independent feelings and desires, would’ve set her free long before the climactic scene.) The brief scene with his ex-girlfriend at the party let us know that he was a self-absorbed arsehole in prior relationships as well. And there was not a single scene to suggest that he had changed, evolved or matured in any way.

    So why did the writer think we were rooting for him to get the girl in the end? I was rooting for Ruby to run far away and for him to fall off a cliff; he was awful. The only explanation I can think of is maybe because his girlfriend wrote it, she overestimated the sympathy we would feel for his character.

  • FunWithHeadlines

    I disagree. The title character is Ruby, and she is the one we root for as she breaks out of her prison and develops independently of Calvin.

  • Susan Wenger

    Ruby has more agency than you give her credit for. Sometimes she doesn’t want to have sex when Calvin does! She has a life of her own, which Calvin finds threatening! They have fights. And when Calvin tries to get his creation back under control, it results in Ruby behaving in ways that no human does. The contrast between Ruby as originally written by Calvin and Ruby as controlled by Calvin is telling.

    She doesn’t cease to exist because he gets bored with the project. He ends the project because he realizes it’s wrong to control her, and he hopes she chooses to stay with him of her own free will.

    And then she leaves him.

  • Spiritas

    wow, you are so negative, your review is so one sided and emotional, I suggest you stop writing these.
    Calvin got to know Ruby in his dreams, he grew to fell in love with her in his dreams. He does not want to accept the fact she is real, because HE KNOWS already that he is in love with the creation of his mind. When he gets forced to realise she is real, he has practically no other option than to love her, like he already did in his dreams. You really ignore the part of Calvin having to contradict his own rational chain of thought, he knows he’s in love with a dummy. Now your quick answer would be: ‘egoïsm, that dick only cares about himself’. I can’t explain you the ground of that, you have to actually be in love before you can understand his decision.This story is not so much about Calvin being taught how to handle woman and stopping to be a selfish jerk.Remember how he is really insecure and tries to avoid people in the beginning of the movie? It’s about him learning to love and respect his inner self, because Ruby is just a projection of his mind. When he tries to change Ruby, he ends up hurting her emotionally in the same way as she hurt him. Here you should realise he is still fighting his own mind. In the end he gets a bit power drunk, but forces himself to show Ruby it is all fake and Calvin is in control of her, he realises he has to set her free in order to break the connection between Ruby and his own mind, while risking he might never see her again. A fully conscious action out of true love.

    To be honest I did not like the closed ending, ofcourse it brings much relief, but it ruled out so many other possible options.

  • Late to the party on this, obviously… but I saw the movie from the git-go as a very overt comment on the idealisation of MPDGs, a table-turner on the narcissism of the man (men) (boy-men) who would want someone like that, an absurd morality play about the fantasy’s self-absorbed, clichéd unreality. The last scene I found very odious indeed. Learn to live in the real world, it seemed to suggest, and you’ll be rewarded by your fantasy anyway, don’t worry! There’s something leaden and unsure about the filmmaking throughout, underlining and sentimentalising and being both overbearing and oversweet even when they’re trying to be brutal and satirical. Throughout the film I kept thinking how simultaneously more farcical and biting it would have been if it had been made by a young Woody Allen or Elaine May, or even as a Carl Reiner/Steve Martin flick. (And THEY woulda gone for the Stepford Wives ending, which is what this material needs to really stay with us.)

  • john

    It can be viewed as either character’s story or both. Yahtzee.

  • john

    I disagree as well. “emphatically”.

  • john

    While it may be true that Hollywood makes too many movies wherein women are not people it is a generalization to say that once a writer takes a break from ” actually sitting in front of the typewriter” the novel that writer is working on is still a project. For this writer there have been times when this is just not the case. And Ruby still did exist on a different level even though “it” was finished in his mind. You are lending a definitive status to ideas which are not necessarily so.

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