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Ruby Sparks Review: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Gets Her Due

By TK | Film Reviews | August 3, 2012 | Comments ()


ruby_sparks_trailer.jpg

There is a strange, visceral reaction among many film fans to the conceit of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." I'm not going to waste too much space explaining what she is because most of you know it. You can find a definition here, and you can find some examples courtesy of our own Courtney Enlow here. She is a silly and frustrating creature, a nerd-baiting fantasy invention who only exists in the minds of writers seeking to create a romance that is wholly implausible and improbable, to make folks in the real world believe that there is a carefree, spunky sprite of a girl out there, better than any of the plain old folks out, waiting for the right quiet, solemn soul to find her and make her his.

Ruby Sparks takes this concept and drills down into it, taking it to previously unseen depths and creates a story that is so totally fascinating and engaging that one is easily able to move past the completely insane and ridiculous central plot device. Much like its tonal brother Stranger Than Fiction, Ruby Sparks asks you accept a basic, nonsensical element and run with it. The film stars the criminally underrated Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) as Calvin, a boy genius novelist who dropped out of high school and somehow wrote the next great American novel at the age of 20 ... and then promptly was beset by years of writer's block and now can barely relate to the people around him, save for his brother (Chris Messina) and his agent. He's a nebbish, insecure, mess of a human being who sees a therapist (a brilliant turn by Elliott Gould) to try to cure his paralyzed muse as well as try to become more of a "normal" person while also curing his crippling social awkwardness and stunted interpersonal skills.

Yet when inspiration strikes, it strikes hard, in the form of a strange, ethereal set of dreams that Calvin has about a woman named Ruby. He begins furiously writing her story, creating a fully fleshed-out history and life and persona. He becomes more and more emotionally invested in his newest creation until one day, after falling asleep at his desk, he aimlessly stumbles downstairs to find Ruby herself (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay), whole and in the flesh, making breakfast in his kitchen.

He is, as you can imagine, perturbed and puzzled and somewhat terrified, all in a hilariously panicked fashion. Yet Ruby is very much real and perhaps most surprisingly, very much in love with Calvin. Thus begins their epic love story as he discovers that Ruby is all that he wants and all that he's ever imagined his perfect woman to be. She's the living embodiment of the MPDG -- she loves zombie movies and blowjobs and the same music and food, while always goofing off and smiles sweetly at everything he says. She's utterly devoted, but not in any kind of strange, codependent fashion. Instead, she's the perfect representation of what Calvin dreamed he always wanted.

The events that follow are less a love story and more a frank, wickedly clever and also quite bittersweet examination of what happens when we begin to idealize romance, what love is and what love isn't, and why, in the end, the idea behind the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a farce. Ruby starts out as a lovably silly, quirky-as-hell ingénue, but once made real, she ... becomes real. She develops independence and intellectual curiosity and, as a result, boredom. The ensuing frantic worry that envelops Calvin is fascinating, bordering on terrifying, as his obsession with her and his desperate need to have her be his and his alone leads him to take actions ranging from disturbing to hilarious to disturbingly hilarious.

Writer/actress Zoe Kazan and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) have created something quite remarkable with Ruby Sparks. They've developed a fully realized examination of the desperation and pathos and neuroses that come with relationships, yet also a sweet, charming tale of love and loss and growing up. While the film's characters are frequently the familiar wacky, irony-laden archetypes commonly found in independent romcoms, it's done with purpose here and the actors all inject a sense of urgent realism into their roles that separates them from their contemporaries. Dano's Calvin is a neurotic mess, but his problems feel genuine and their roots run deep. His emotionally damaged self is closely examined and given solid footing, and thus feels real and not like a manufactured dramatic device. Similarly, his family -- which also includes a wonderful pairing of Annette Benning as his hippy dippy mother and Antonio Banderas as a raggedy sculptor stepfather -- are weirdly eclectic to the nth degree, but also grounded enough to provide an excellent contrast to Calvin's neurotic stylings.

But the real gem is Kazan (who is also Dano's real-life significant other), who is absolutely phenomenal. She's taken all of the tropes and quirks created by Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman and their ilk, ground them up into a paste and melded them into something wholly unique, thereby subverting the concept completely. Ruby is initially as artificially clever and silly and syrupy sweet as those characters that so many revile, except that Kazan, both in the way she wrote the screenplay as well as in her performance, allows her to slowly evolve into a real person with real emotions and feelings and thoughts and fears. Ruby's Pinocchio-like transformation comes at a dreadful cost to Calvin's psyche, and the events that unfold are engrossing and beautiful, while still embracing a stark realism that is a radical tonal departure from what most people are expecting.

Ruby Sparks is so much smarter than it looks from the surface. It's not the conventional tale one suspects, and it's as much a critical shot at the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and inherent authorial laziness of the creation as it is a clever and charming love story -- that has some deep, treacherous pitfalls along the way. As adorable as it is scathing, the film creates an immersive, enjoyable experience that successfully blends reality and fantasy while laying bare the risks of confusing the two.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • merrimentzzzz

    i watched this just now.. the premise of a person being 'willed' to life by a writer remind me the movie 'stranger than fiction' so for me, ruby sparks wasn't a very original movie. however, it more than made up for it through its easy chemistry between the characters, rather lofty themes relating to free will and true love..not a super great film but definitely a watchable one..

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I'm looking forward to seeing this movie.

    But I don't understand why people keep insisting Manic Pixie Dream Girls don't exist in real life. They might be overused in the movies (though we are now over-labeling female characters as such) - but like most stereotypes, they are found in nature.

  • AudioSuede

    Just saw it, and I loved it, for all the reasons you mentioned. Dano goes towards awkward physical comedy a bit in this one, as well, and pulls it off brilliantly. But more importantly, the film's ability to dissect not only a film trope but an unrealistic depiction of women by writers and men in general and the nigh-immoral ways in which we concoct these false idealizations and force them on women is the film's greatest success. I walked away feeling like I'd learned a much-needed lesson, and I had fun along the way. That's the worth of a great movie.

  • ach10

    I saw a screening of this a couple weeks ago, followed by a Q&A with Zoe, Paul, and the directors. I couldn't agree more with your review--the whole MPDG is shown to be unrealistic, but the real love story is completely charming!

  • SabrinaHatesDisqus

    I want to watch this, but I don't know if I can get past the fact that these two look incredibly similar. I thought they were brother and sister when I first saw a picture of them.

    Plus, any guy who prefers blowjobs to fucking is just plain lazy.

  • BWeaves

    Exactly what I was thinking. About them being brother and sister, creepy.

  • TheOriginalMRod

    This reeks of too much Woody Allen. But I don't want to hate on it. It looks like Dano is doing his best Woody Allen impersonation, and it is always way more fun to watch someone other than Woody Allen do it. Again.. I am totally not hating on it, it looks cute and fun.

    But this reminded me of a girl... chick... who is always at our favorite bar, she is a little too friendly and drinks like a sailor on leave. She corrected my boyfriend when he used the word "ethereal" she told him it is pronounced "ether real". Now there is a "Manic Pixie" for you... I don't think the "Dream Girl" part would be included, unless you are Charles Bukowski.

  • Abbey Road

    My sister is something of a MPDG herself (pastry chef with wide blue eyes, fantastic sense of humor & abundance of every kind of creativity). She and I coined a term for the grey-blank-slate men that are regularly attracted to girls like her: personality vampires. Maybe she *does* have enough personality for two, but that doesn't mean she wants to share her life with a cardboard cutout. That's another problem with your typical MPDG flicks - they make dull-as-dirt guys constantly think she's The Answer (& that she'd ever be interested).

  • cinekat

    I loved "Stranger Than Fiction" so count me in...

  • BarbadoSlim

    WAIT! when did the MPDG specs start listing blowjobs?

  • Haystacks

    I believe that is in the 'Dream Girl' section of the title

  • Martin

    Zoe Kazan is terrific.

  • nosio

    Excellent review. I can't wait to see this!

  • googergieger

    I liked I'm A Cyborg But That's Okay and Castaway On The Moon. Kind of it for my "quirky" romantic comedies. Though to be fair those did have something actually unique about them. You know besides that whole fauxindie thing, this and other flicks like this have going for them.

  • Alwyn

    Harper from Signature Theatre's production of Angels!!! AHHHH!! I'm in.

  • Great review-I'll be watching for Paul Dano.

  • Craig

    Rod Serling's influence is still alive and well 50 years later. See the Twilight Zone episode "A World Of His Own" for the source of this plot idea.

  • MizB

    so, it's a modern retelling of Pygmalion, Exept with a not-so-happy ending.

  • Snath

    I've wanted to see this since I first saw the trailer months ago. Glad to know it's as excellent as it looks.

  • Lurkey Turkey

    Amazing. I love Paul Dano, and will absolutely see this. Probably sans significant other, but whatever. :)

  • Pookie

    Oh so now on Wednesdays we aren’t supposed to worry about plot holes when just yesterday Carlson puts out an almost criminal ten thousand word hit job on the plot holes in “The Dark Knight Rises?” But today you want us to whimsically forget about the massively gapping plot hole right in the middle of this movie, sure, we’ll get right on that as soon as we finish lunch.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Magic realism is not a plot hole.

  • Pookie

    “Magic realism” oh ok.

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