Written by Zoe Kazan
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Ruby Sparks is Manic Pixie Dream Girl meta as fuck. If you aren’t familiar with the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, then you probably don’t read a lot of reviews written by indie writers who pretend they’re the only people who watch bad cinema. Which is good, your life is measurably better! But as a crash course, these Manic Pixie Dream Girls are chicks from indie films who who up and are all perky and adorkable and inspiring, oddly attracted to the bland and uptight male protagonist for reasons unknown, and then leaves by the end of the film for greener pastures, leaving the bland male slightly less bland and uptight. Manic Pixie Dream Girls run wild with their weirdo skirts and dresses (always paired with bright tights of mismatched colors), wild hair and giant blue/green eyes. Ruby Sparks asks the questions “What if a writer was able to create a Manic Pixie Dream Girl wholesale? And she’d do whatever he told her to?”
Stories of creating the perfect woman have been around since the earliest days. Most of those tales have the not so nice undercurrent that the woman’s ability to decide her fate does not exist. Heck, even in many Manic Pixie Dream Girl films, the girl has to be the source of inspiration and change for the hero. That’s her role, and maybe when the whole thing is over she’ll get to be happy, but they’re specifically made not to be happy unless they are fluttering from place to place like a butterfly.
Zoe Kazan not only looks the MPDG part, she has one of the required names, and she even wrote the script. But Zoe Kazan isn’t a MPDG, she’s a real person, a human being with hopes and dreams and drives and freedom. The exact things Ruby strives for, Zoe Kazan becomes the enemy and destroys it from within, by pointing out the absurdity as the fantasy woman is both torn down and built into a real person. It seems natural that Ruby Sparks was written by a woman, such as the fact that it deals with real relationship issues while only barely touching all the sick weirdo perv stuff Calvin could be making Ruby do.
Calvin Weir-Fields is your normal child genius writer who wrote the greatest American novel since Catcher in the Rye 10 years ago and hasn’t written anything longer than a novella since. He’s also a loser with the ladies, and only gets out of the house when either visiting Elliott Gould’s awesome shrink character or when dragged to the gym by his brother Harry (Chris Messina in one of the most unlikely casting of two brothers I’ve seen in a film!) Calvin’s writers block is cracked when he begins dreaming about a girl. As the dreams continue, he begins writing them down, at which point he writes more so he can spend more time with the girl. Eventually, she begins to consume his life, spending time writing instead of keeping up with agent details or book publisher social events.
This all hits the head when one morning Calvin wakes up and Ruby is there cooking breakfast. He freaks out, thinking he’s insane. But he soon comes to realize he’s not crazy, she’s actually there, and other people can see her. She’s exactly as he wrote her, and a bit of conspiring talk with his brother reveals that whatever Calvin writes about her will happen, such as speaking French.
Calvin vows he’ll never write anything to change her. But as time moves on and their relationship moves past the lovey-dovey stage, Ruby is bored out of her skull trapped at the apartment all day. She has no job and no friends. We all know how outgoing a character like Ruby is supposed to be, being trapped inside all day alone must be a living hell. After a visit to Calvin’s mom’s house (his mom and step-dad Antonio Banderas are straight out of Meet the Fockers!) where Calvin just mopes around, Ruby begins to want more space. This causes Calvin to have withdrawal, and eventually write her back to missing him. She does, immediately. And intensely. To the point where she doesn’t want to let him go for him to go to the bathroom. Further writing attempts result in more extreme behavior.
Calvin tries to reset everything, but soon the same pent up bored Ruby returns. Things lead to a head in a terrific scene that I don’t want to spoil too much. But needless to say, there is plenty of fallout, both good and bad.
Ruby Sparks is a delight, a frank deconstruction of relationships using a fantasy woman and a guy who has barely been in any. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan work well together (and they should, what with their dating and starring in numerous stage plays together!) The supporting cast all shine in their roles, special mentions to Deborah Ann Woll as the evil ex-girlfriend who might not be so evil (and Woll is essentially playing the same part this season on True Blood!), Alia Shawkat as the groupie fangirl, Elliott Gould as the psychiatrist (that I though was Calvin’s dad at first), and Steve Coogan as the burnt out writer overshadowed by the inexperienced kid.
Speculation Section (Everything here is SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!):
The wording at the end about Calvin omitting or changing details so the girl he loved wouldn’t be recognized can also act as a way of saying that there was no Ruby Sparks, the entire thing was about the ex-girlfriend played by Deborah Ann Woll or about another girl. Calvin changing things for the book he wrote mirrors how he changed Ruby in the film, which makes Ruby Sparks a self-referential commentary about itself. He was in his mind turning “Ruby” into what he wanted her to be, even though that wasn’t what she was and their relationship suffered for it. At the end, when he finds a real “Ruby”, she’s “Ruby” in a sense that she is the actual dream girl for him, a real girl that he’ll be with, flaws and all. The idealized girl of the story was just what he
And wouldn’t it have made sense if Antonio Banderas was also created from thin air, one of Calvin’s Mom’s paintings come to life? He’s certainly a male equivalent of the MPDG, the handsome foreign sexy manly man who builds with his hands and is into all sorts of touchy-feely holy things. More importantly, he’s the kind of guy Calvin’s mom needed to get back to doing the things she loved before she paired off with Calvin’s dad. But that would take away from the miracle of Ruby Sparks, her character losing some of the uniqueness and specialness. It’s best that Banderas is real.
As a disclaimer, I got a free pass to this thanks to my skills at acquiring free passes from contests. And even better, some sunglasses company was going to give away sunglasses, and then signed up only half of the theater before running out of papers for names. Then they drew names anyway, to the loud boos of the rest of us. So that was fun! (Actually, yelling bad things in a crowded theater was fun!)
Rated 8/10 (dreamy, rolly, bro, mom, burnout, going home, pinecone, preview)
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