REVIEW: Ruby Sparks Blows Up Manic Pixie Dream Girl Myth
The title character of Ruby Sparks is a 26-year-old painter from Dayton, Ohio played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film's screenplay, She has bangs and wears brightly colored tights. Her first crushes were on John Lennon and Humphrey Bogart. She loves to cook, can't drive and doesn't own a computer. Her problems, as someone points out, are all of the "endearing" variety.
She's also entirely the invention of Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a blocked author who wrote a hit novel at age 19 and 10 years later, has yet to follow it up. Living a solitary life in Los Angeles, he's advised by his shrink Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) to write about meeting someone while out walking his dog, Scotty.
Ruby first appears to Calvin in his sleep, and soon he's fleshing her character out on his typewriter. For the first time in ages, words come to him easily as he tells the story of how his literal dream girl meets and ends up with a guy who's a lot like him.
Directed by Little Miss Sunshine's team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparksisn't the exercise in stevia-dusted whimsy that it sounds like, especially once a flesh-and-blood Ruby suddenly materializes — exactly as Calvin wrote her — with no awareness that she began as a fictional literary character.
This touch of movie magic is actually a way for the filmmakers to tartly examine the cinematic trope of the manic pixie dream girl and the larger problems inherent in searching for someone who's perfect for you.
Ruby is perfect for Calvin because he wrote her to be that way. She's not your stereotypical pneumatic blond lust object because while sex is certainly part of the relationship Calvin is looking for, control and security are more important. She's adorable but vulnerable because she's been treated badly. She's eager to please, and though Calvin is nothing like the other men she's dated, she falls in love with him instantly and even promises him, "I will never get sick of you."
As Calvin's older, married brother Harry (Chris Messina) points out when reading his sibling's description of Ruby before she ever manages her transition into the physical world, "you haven't written a person, you've written a girl."
And Kazan has written a portrait of a self-pitying, self-protective creative type that becomes so progressively biting that the film's hopeful epilogue doesn't quite fly.
We learn more about Calvin as he initially freaks out about Ruby's presence — he thinks he's going nuts until he realizes other people can see her — but then gratefully comes to accept it. In ebullient montages, the pair goes to an arcade and out dancing. They settle into a life together.
Calvin and his brother figure out early on that Ruby is a malleable creation. Calvin can dictate his dream girl's behavior by continuing to write about her. At first, he vows not to play God and locks up his work in a drawer, but Ruby starts to chafe at being Calvin's sole companion and at being expected to support his self-centered behavior. His treatment of Ruby grows crueler and as we meet his ex-girlfriend Lila (True Blood's Deborah Ann Woll) and realize that his account of their breakup is seriously slanted.
Ruby starts building a life away from Calvin, and soon he's pulling out paper and trying to fix her problems with him (instead of himself).
Dayton and Faris have created a very grounded L.A. for this not-so-grounded story. They make notable use of the all-white bungalow in which Calvin spends most of his days sitting by the backyard pool .
Dano is very good at morphing from the shaggy, appealing literary genius he appears to be at the film's outset into a troubled, not-so-nice guy who comes sharply into focus at film's end.
After all, Ruby Sparks is really about Calvin. Ruby is simply a mirror — which is why the ending strikes the only real false note of the movie. Calvin gets a dose of much-needed self-awareness and what feels like the wrong sort of chance at redemption.
As a whole, however, Ruby Sparks lands like a punch. It's a smart counter-jab to the many movies out there that put forth the myth that the world is full of quirky angels in ballet flats who are just waiting for some morose protagonist to come along in need of their love. It's as much of a fantasy as Kelly LeBrock emerging from a teenager's PC.
Real people have problems that can't be dismissed with a sweeping sentence on a page — and real relationships involve compromise and dealing with those problems, not holding out for someone who indulges your every foible and asks nothing in return.