An article in today’s New York Times Sunday Styles section got me thinking about the indie-film phenomenon of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: a young woman who’s beautiful and quirky and perfect in the eyes of the lovestruck, mixed-up guy who falls for her. She’s been prominent in the past decade or so, but you could trace her origins to Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall,” or Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Shirley MacLaine in “The Apartment” before that.
One of my favorite things I did at the AP was my weekly Five Most list, so I’m happy to bring it back here, with a look at five quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girls:
_ Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown” (2005): The character who inspired then-A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin (now of The Dissolve) to coin the phrase. (I do hope he’s collecting some sort of royalties for it — it was damned clever.) As chatty flight attendant Claire, who drags Orlando Bloom’s character out of his fog following his father’s death, Dunst says just the right, poignant thing at just the right time and has excellent taste in music, as evidenced by her elaborate mix tapes. (She is a Cameron Crowe creation, after all.) An all-night phone call leads to a romantic meeting at sunrise. Their connection is cosmic; she’s a stranger but she understands him in a way no one else ever has. People like this only exist in the movies.
_ Natalie Portman in “Garden State” (2004): I will admit that I loved this movie when it came out; in retrospect, I realize it’s a better soundtrack than a film. But right smack in the center of it is a goofy, perky Portman who — like Dunst in “Elizabethtown” — lifts Zach Braff’s character from his depression after the death of his mother. Portman’s Sam is a self-professed compulsive liar who meets cute with Braff’s character in a doctor’s office waiting room and becomes his impromptu sidekick. She dances and makes silly noises when she’s feeling uncomfortable, for example. Compared to her stilted performances in the “Star Wars” prequels, though, her effervescence here was a joy to watch.
_ Zooey Deschanel in … many things, but especially “(500) Days of Summer” (2009): This type of figure is Deschanel’s bread and butter. As the young woman of the film’s title, she’s the object of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s obsession, then his affection, and ultimately his depression. Deschanel’s Summer, an assistant at a greeting-card company, wears adorably ladylike vintage dresses and gamely plays house inside an Ikea store. The fact that she’s new to Los Angeles makes her seem even more fascinating; she represents endless promise. And because the memory of their relationship is told completely through Gordon-Levitt’s perspective, it’s more than a little romanticized.
_ Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004): Winslet’s character especially fits the description, seeming even more magical because we see her entirely through the melancholy memory of Jim Carrey as he tries to erase her from his mind. She’s got wildly multi-hued hair, an eclectic wardrobe and a disarmingly direct manner. She works in a bookstore. She even has a pleasingly old-fashioned name: Clementine. But in Winslet’s hands, as written by the brilliant and imaginative Charlie Kaufman, she feels like a complex person rather than just an oddball type.
_ Charlyne Yi in “Paper Heart” (2009): Yi plays a version of herself in this documentary-fiction hybrid in which she travels the country interviewing regular people about being in love. Along the way, she “falls for” Michael Cera, playing a version of himself. (They may or may not actually have dated in real life.) The writer, actress and standup comic is a nerd goddess: goofy, tomboyish, unapologetically awkward with an off-kilter sense of humor — and the fact that she’s so self-deprecating and seems so earnest in her quest to find the meaning of true love makes her pretty hard to resist.