It was The Onion AV Club’s film critic Nathan Rabin who coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, as part of a review of Cameron Crowe’s painful flop Elizabethtown. The MPDG is a stock character usually found in indie films penned by morose hipster dudes; identifiable by her sprightly cuteness, delightfully zany demeanour, and the fact she seems to exist only to inspire the male protagonist. And she’s petite. They’re always bloody tiny. Quoth Rabin:
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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.
They are the girls of Garden State, Elizabethtown, Almost Famous… Ever since Natalie Portman passed Zach Braff her headphones promising the Shins would change his life, or Kate Hudson gently rearranged Patrick Fugit’s face to make him “mysterious”, or Kirsten Dunst made the most impossible road-trip-scavenger-hunt-mix-tape for Orlando Bloom, the bar has been raised for real life girls who hope to fall in love with non-threateningly cute nice boys with decent taste in music.
So I got to thinking about MPDGs because I finally watched 500 Days of Summer last night. In this case the lovely Zooey Deschanel is the MPDG to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s foolishly romantic greeting-card-writer. It was a pretty film to see and hear, gussied up with a self-consciously hip soundtrack and twee directorial touches like impromptu musical numbers, flashes of animation, and of course the hopscotch timeline-jumping structure.
I had high hopes for this movie, and I was conscious of it pushing all my buttons. Everything – from Summer’s toile wallpaper and vintage dresses, to the 70s-faux-timber veneers of the karaoke bar and stuttering sunlight filtering through train windows – seemed calculated to seduce a certain kind of self-conscious retrophile Gen Y. In its way, the film is just as mannered as A Single Man.
But for all the elevator meet-cutes and playing-house-in-IKEA dates, for all its surface beauty to make you wriggle with pleasure, the characters are pretty hard to like. Sure, Summer is gorgeous and you can totally see why sales increased by a couple hundred percent the summer she worked at the ice-cream shop. But she’s also kinda hollow behind the quirk, and emotionally detached to the point of being almost sociopathic – though she is totally upfront from the beginning that she doesn’t want a relationship.
And what of our hero, the hangdog Tom, whose every facial expression retains something of the puppy looking up with unshakeable admiration of the one who keeps kicking him? He victims out on how Summer screwed him over, when he was the one who took it as a challenge when she said she didn’t believe in love.
This emptiness is a classic MPDG side-effect, as the fabulous Rachel Hills articulated well on her blog, Musings of an Inappropriate Woman:
In a way, it felt like [Elizabethtown’s] Claire and [Garden State’s] Sam were male fantasies of an alternative ideal woman with about as much real depth as a paddling pool – on the surface, they seemed like women of substance, but they didn’t act like real people. Unlike the male characters, their actions didn’t seem to result from logical motives. They existed purely as catalysts to help their respective male protagonists along on their journeys.
You can sense a hefty dose of fantasy fulfilment from the film-maker, which is perhaps not entirely accidental when you consider Tom’s trajectory and the fact his little sister has to tell him “next time you look back on it all, don’t just think about the good stuff”. But all the cultural references feel a little forced – The Smiths are the band they first bond over? Tom is blown away because Summer can carry a conversation about Salinger short stories? Really?? If you’re going to be so condescending about how cultured these crazy kids are, at least try to amp up the obscurantism.
But perhaps I’m too cynical. I did, after all, watch the movie at home alone on a Friday night, to dull the squeamishness of accidentally glimpsing via Facebook my ex cavorting with bikini-clad, barely-legal backpackers throughout Asia. I may not be the person this movie was made for. Then again, I might be exactly that person.
The AV Club lists 16 films featuring MPDGs throughout the ages
Jezebel’s take on the feminist implications of the MPDG