Beyond The Pixie Dream Girl

Silver Linings Playbook, Liberal Arts and the universal love for Jennifer Lawrence

by Gordon Campbell

Philip Matthews’ regular film column will be back next month.

In the wake of this year’s Oscars, the vast sea of humanity seems to have fallen in love with Jennifer Lawrence, ranging from the grandfatherly generation – thank you, Jack Nicholson – right down to the tiny tots. Which raises the question of what the rise of Jennifer Lawrence may mean for the survival of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Can the likes of Lawrence and Jessica Chastain and Elizabeth Olsen and Elizabeth Moss succeed in breaking the mould in which so many young female actors have been trapped for the past decade or more?

Memorably, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first identified and defined by AV Club film critic Nathan Rabin as being “ 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.” She is the screen incarnation of Woman As Elusive Mystery placed on this earth solely to make real men, of boy men. Does she have an inner life of her own? C’mon. Does a rainbow know its pretty?

At 22, the way that Lawrence is currently handling her fame may not be sustainable for long. Yet for now, her instinctive disdain for the conventions of film starlet responses is startling. It was evident last year, in her Letterman interview about the Hunger Games movie, but the real clincher came at her post Oscar press conference.

Normally, this is a context where female Oscar winners are expected to be (a) radiantly happy (b) gratefully humble (c) winsomely gorgeous as the assembled press pinch and prod them for variations on the agreed set of responses. Lawrence blew right past those expectations without pandering one bit, and managed to ridicule the idiocy of the questions and the occasion without seeming to try. It was admirable, and likeable without being ditsy. In the Daily Telegraph, one columnist was only half joking when she called Lawrence the future of womankind.

Naturally, a backlash has already been noted. Maybe she isn’t that great an actor they’re saying and maybe not that attractive. Maybe, the same snipers have suggested, she is this year’s Renee Zellweger, another non-conformist likely to flame out, leaving barely a trace behind.

Fairly or otherwise, Zooey Deschanel has been damned as the epitome of the Pixie Dream Girl. Never more so than in 500 Days Of Summer, in which she put Joseph Gordon-Levitt through love’s wringer and taught him a thing or two about life. So far, Elizabeth Olsen has escaped being typecast in the same way. The kid sister of the Olsen twins, she made her breakthrough in the impressive 2011 indie hit Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Currently though, Olsen can be seen in New Zealand cinemas in the film Liberal Arts, in which she plays an idealistic 19 year old sophomore called Zibby (sigh) who awakens our jaded 35 year old writer/director /star Josh Radnor from his midlife crisis, by showing him (notwithstanding an argument over the Twilight books) how to get out of the rut, and take a chance on life. Contrived as this sounds – and in précis it is a classic Pixie Dream Girl movie – there are at least a couple of things that redeem Liberal Arts, apart from Olsen’s own luminous screen presence.

For one thing – and I’ll try and avoid spoilers – Liberal Arts has a fairly interesting take on academic life, as experienced by different generations. For the Olsen character, university is a source of wonder and awakening. For the 35 year hero, it is a nostalgic playground of suspended – “stunted” is his word for it – adolescence, rife with nostalgia for a time when his own life seemed full of exciting ideas and genuine options. For the two senior faculty professors (played by Richard Jenkins and Alison Janney respectively) academic life is a gilded cage – offering one an arena for his beliefs that helps ward off loneliness, while for the Janney character, academia offers an endless supply of young men that enable her to make a cougarish mockery of the romantic poetry that she teaches. I’ll just mention in passing that Radnor steals shamelessly from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall/Manhattan period, complete with a Brooklyn Bridge interlude.

Lets assume Olsen signed for this role before the success of Martha, Marcy etc put her in another league. With not a lot of help from the script, she still manages to make the effervescent Zibby into a credible, three dimensional figure. However, does she exist mainly as a catalyst in our male hero’s life journey? Absolutely. And never more so than in a key scene between the two leads, which I can’t describe without spoilers. Suffice to say, the male hero’s moral code gets given far more weight and screen time than the (offscreen) impact his decision has on Zibby, who is painfully humiliated by the choice he makes. The trajectory of these two characters after this key scene is indicative of the sad lot of Pixie Dream Girls in general. His outcome is comic, sexy and redemptive. Her path looks much more painful, but left entirely unexplored. That’s what happens to Pixie Dream Girls. Their job done, they vanish like Tinker Bell.

You could also call Silver Linings Playbook a variation on the Pixie Dream Girl theme. David O. Russell’s film depicts an oddball romance between two mentally ill people, where their manic depression merely makes them more humorously interesting and vibrantly alive than normal people and their stuffy old social conventions. This time, they’re both Manic Pixies but once again, it is the woman who does the heavy lifting. It is she who pursues him, provides a tangible goal (a dance contest!) for his lonely existence, and it is she eventually motivates him to stop being delusional. This is a feel-good romance, and no complaints about that. It is also one where the heroine’s back story depicts has having been more of a Sleeping Around Beauty than a conventional fairy princess. It is she who plays the adult, until he finally stops being a Pixie Boy, and steps up. That’s an advance of sorts, I guess.

Much of the problem here – one that Silver Linings Playbook and Liberal Arts share with many other movies – is that the POV of the narrative is resolutely and automatically, male. Which means that the inner life of the female characters has to be inferred, and usually only in her relation to our hero. That’s an excellent reason why Martha Marcy May Marlene (Olsen) Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone ( Lawrence) and Zero Dark Thirty ( Jessica Chastain) are such a radically welcome respite. All of these movies are ones in which the inner life of the female characters (and the choices that they make) is the engine that drives the narrative – and not just in a kitchen sink, family centred context either, or in relation to the male lead – but in action narratives that were hitherto the sole province of men. In the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen ( Lawrence) even gets the opportunity to choose between two willing suitors and – even more dramatically – chooses neither of them.

Of all these films, Martha Marcy May Marlene is probably the one most removed from normal narrative conventions. Olsen plays someone who escapes from the confines of a cult and takes refuge with her sister’s family, only to find that the transition is immensely difficult. Not only has she been damaged in realistic (and off putting) ways by her experience, but she finds it increasingly difficult to relate to her sister, and to the “normality” of her sister’s worldview. Over time this renders her more, not less vulnerable to the malignant cult, as it reaches out for her again. It is a horror story, and one with a central character who engages and repels the sympathy of the audience in almost equal measure. It puts the audience in the position of the sister, feeling awkwardly and impotently protective as the bad stuff closes in. Olsen’s ability to convey her disturbed character is fully the equal of Joaquin Phoenix’s achievement in The Master, and Phoenix has had a lot more experience to draw on.

Can Olsen and Lawrence sustain what has been a dream run to date? Next up, Lawrence will revisit an Appalachian setting (for the first time since Winter’s Bone) in Serena, a period film set in 1927 that is based on the book by Ron Rash, who was in New Zealand last year for Writers and Readers Week. Lawrence plays a schemer who sets about wresting control of a small town timber business from the family of her husband, played (again) by Bradley Cooper. The director is Susanne Bier, best known for the Mads Mikkelson drama After The Wedding and In a Better World. In October, the second installment of the Hunger Games will be released in which – as fans of the book will know – Katniss Everdeen has to survive far more ambiguous and treacherous challenges, Right now, Lawrence is shooting an untitled film for Silver Linings director David O. Russell based on the 1970s Abscam political scandal, and co-starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper ( yet again) Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams. No sign of Pixie Dream Girls in any of those roles.

As for Olsen, her next major film is in the period drama Therese Raquin, based on the 1867 novel by Emile Zola. It deals with the tragic outcome of the title character’s attempt to escape the confines of a loveless marriage. That will be followed by Olsen’s appearance in Spike Lee’s American remake of the Korean cult movie Oldboy. Then comes Kill Your Darlings which is about a 1944 gay hate killing that was a formative episode in the careers of the young Allen Ginsberg ( played in this film by Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame ! ) William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Kill Your Darlings premiered at Sundance this year, to generally positive reviews. Lets agree to ignore Olsen’s role in Very Good Girls with Dakota Fanning, about a ‘lets lose our virginity pact’ that two friends make, and which comes to focus (sigh) on the same cute guy.

In sum, there are a few encouraging signs that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl may have just about run her course. In future, will sensitive boy-men have to paddle their own canoes down the river of life? Late last year, Slate magazine ran a piece suggesting that this may indeed be the case. “Critiques of the MPDG,” Slate suggested, “may have become more common than the archetype itself.” Slate also linked to the clip below of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl Prostitute acting out scenes from the Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman show reel of wacky, life affirming muses. Anything to nudge the concept into oblivion.