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.