If movie trailers qualify as bait, then Ruby Sparks is a bait-and-switch. The preview for Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ new film, written by Zoe Kazan and starring Kazan and her boyfriend Paul Dano, teases a lighthearted comedy about a lonely author who writes his dream girl only to find she’s come to life. Kazan’s Ruby promises to be the kind of magical girl who impulsively jumps in pools, sticks her arm out of convertible windows to feel the wind, and would like nothing more than to make out with a nerdy loner in a video arcade — you know, a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, defined by critic Nathan Rabin as a female character that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Since she was actually conceived as the creation of just such a sensitive writer, Ruby looked to be the most manic and pixie of all cinematic dream girls. But Zoe Kazan is no broodingly soulful young man, and the switch she provides is worth a thousand Shins-evangelizing Natalie Portmans. “I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life,” she said in a recent Vulture interview. “You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.” Her script is a funny and romantic, but also insightful and haunting, case study in the difference between archetypes and individuals.
The first time we see Ruby Sparks, she comes to Dano’s Calvin Weir-Fields in a dream, a vision bathed in yellow light. Once a high school-dropout prodigy, Calvin is celebrating the tenth anniversary of his first and only novel by hunkering down in his modernist home, failing at an exercise program devised by his concerned older brother Harry (Chris Messina), hugging a teddy bear on his therapist’s (Elliott Gould) couch, enduring questions from fans who wonder what it’s like not to be famous anymore, and socializing with basically no one. Spurred by vivid dreams and his shrink’s homework assignment, he feels a rush of inspiration and begins frantically typing Ruby’s story.
Calvin’s thrilled with his creation, but Harry expresses his doubts in a speech that echoes Kazan’s take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them more endearing are not real,” he says. But she is so real to Calvin that she consumes his thoughts the way an actual girlfriend would — and then, one morning, he wakes up and she’s making eggs in his kitchen. Ruby is an excellent cook with a flair for matching brightly colored tights with adorable dresses. She is a competent artist with no pesky ambition who loves Calvin and isn’t afraid to take her panties off while dancing. And although he initially fears he’s hallucinating, he soon finds out that everyone can see Ruby. Somehow, seemingly against the laws of the universe, she exists.
And this is where Kazan pulls the rug out from under all the sensitive dudes who long for their very own Ruby Sparks (and the women who wish they could leave their frustratingly complex existences behind and be her), the part where we find out where all those groan-worthy moments we’ve already seen in other movies are leading. Now that Calvin has stopped writing about her, Ruby begins to develop on her own. All of a sudden, she’s singing while he tries to write and feels too tired for sex and wants to meet his hippie mother and wonders why he has no friends. Our reclusive antihero knows he can regain control of her at any time by continuing his story — but what kind of a sicko would turn his girlfriend into a literary Stepford Wife, now that he knows she’s a flesh-and-blood person?
What comes next is too smart and chaotically graceful to spoil, an emotionally charged implosion of a fatally one-dimensional archetype that dramatizes the problem with lonely male writers creating female characters who don’t exist — pretty, offbeat girls with no hopes or dreams or thoughts or needs of their own. It’s no coincidence that it took a woman screenwriter to inoculate us against the Manic Pixie Dream Girl epidemic.
But Ruby Sparks doesn’t just kill all those boring Zooey Deschanel and Kirsten Dunst caricatures; as an excellent ex-girlfriend ex machina cameo by Deborah Ann Woll (aka Jessica from True Blood) drives home, Kazan’s aim is broader and deeper than that. She wants us to come out of the theater thinking not just about cinematic archetypes, but also about our own lives, and how selfish and futile and immature and silly it is to try and shape the person we love into our perfect mate. The film is an affirmation that no one we could ever dream up to meet our needs could mean as much to us as a real, flawed, spontaneous human being.
That’s a whole lot of cultural criticism and universal lesson-learning to pack into a romantic comedy, but the film’s moralizing only rarely takes the place of entertainment. Aided by direction that doesn’t overstate the obvious and excellent performances from a cast that also features Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, and Antonio Banderas, Ruby Sparks is a quick and witty summer Indiewood movie that also happens to take apart some of the most tired clichés about writing and love.