“Ruby Sparks” (2012)
by A.J. Hakari
I have a bone to pick with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. If you’re not familiar with what’s come to be a most despised cinematic trope, just imagine Elizabethtown, Larry Crowne, or any film featuring a free-spirited woman whose lone mission in life is to turn the sadsack male lead’s frown upside down. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has nothing better to do than be adorable for her fella, with the films themselves often leaving out the checkered past that would lead to this extreme emotional attachment in reality. Few movies actually address the work it’d take to be in a relationship with someone this quirk-laden, and Ruby Sparks is wise enough to be one of them. Though not an entirely successful vilification of the MPDG, it’s a smart, funny, and surprisingly rough picture that’s aware of the dangers of idealizing a romantic interest without accepting the flaws that are inevitably part of the package.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is suffering from the sophomore slump. His debut novel made him a best-selling writer at age 19, and the decade since that has been spent trying to come up with a second act. But after years of staring at his typewriter in anxiety, inspiration at last strikes Calvin, and he begins cranking out a manuscript based on an imaginary girl (Zoe Kazan) who’s been dominating his thoughts. Christened “Ruby Sparks,” this dream gal is a talented artist, an amazing cook, a fantastic lover…and, as Calvin is gob-smacked to discover one morning, a flesh-and-blood person who’s materialized in his house. But despite this reality-shattering event, Calvin proceeds with his newfound relationship, a seemingly picture-perfect romance that starts to sour when his insecurities and the temptation to “weak” Ruby’s persona creep in.
I can’t tell you the relief it was to see that Ruby Sparks wasn’t another shallow wish fulfillment fantasy. I’ve had my fill of White Guys with Problems, whose companions inexplicably put up with their crap and only amount to tools without an ounce of heart or humanity in them. For one thing, it helps that Ruby Sparks was written by the eponymous lass herself, Zoe Kazan, who imbues her script with a vital sense of balance. Just as Ruby isn’t a one-woman quirk machine with no grounding in real life, the film isn’t quick to demonize Calvin for allowing his fears to get the best of him and make changes to Ruby when it looks as if she may drift away. The film treats them as a genuine couple, and the calamities they encounter are the kind that emerge in any relationship where one partner isn’t as emotionally mature as the other is. Ruby Sparks is understanding, but it’s unafraid to note how problematic it is to fall in love with the image of the perfect girlfriend without taking her own baggage into account or pulling your own weight.
Ruby Sparks is a complicated film indeed, though it’s well up to the challenge of being an unflinching character study, while appearing to be a lovey-dovey romcom on the surface. Dano and Kazan are an actual offscreen pair, and they bring with them years of experience with heartaches and high times. Their chemistry is legit, leaving you believing in the friction their personalities cause as much as you buy them being lost in another’s company. Dano’s sensitive performance makes it clear that Calvin’s neuroses come from a valid place, and Kazan is an absolute charmer, turning Ruby into a vibrant soul who can easily love and be loved in return. The two especially hold their own against the experienced supporting actors (including Elliott Gould, Antonio Banderas, and Annette Bening), who turn in what are mostly extended cameos. If the film does have one glaring issue, it’s the resolution, which will please the optimists in the house but is a dramatic departure from the brave and rather dark direction it takes heading into the last act.
Ruby Sparks can be easily misread as twee and cutesy, but fear not. There’s a soul here, so when it tries connecting with a vulnerable place, the resulting sting is earned rather than feeling forced or manipulative. Ruby Sparks goes to show that fantasies are a nice place to visit but are no substitute for good old, gloriously-flawed humanity.