Seemingly from the minute film critic Nathan Rabin coined the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) in 2007 to describe Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown and Natalie Portman's part in Garden State, the terminology became ubiquitous. Ruby Sparks, the new film from the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, tackles this particular archetype head-on.
According to Rabin, "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl 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." He goes on to argue that they are either immediately beguiling to audience members, or gratingly annoying. The premise of Ruby Sparks is that creatively blocked young novelist Calvin (Paul Dano), who can't follow-up the critical and commercial success of his debut novel, begins dreaming about the perfect girl, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan -- also the movie's screenwriter). He becomes overwhelmed by his dream, and -- spurred on by his therapist (Elliott Gould) -- begins writing about her.
Unexpectedly, this seemingly perfect young woman materializes one morning in Calvin's home, ready to cook him breakfast, do everything with him, and basically be a selfless, wacky muse 24/7. Calvin at first assumes he's losing his mind, but he quickly ascertains she's actually there, and soon he discovers that he can control her entirely because she immediately takes on whatever emotional or mental state that he writes for her. While his closest confident (Chris Messina) pushes him to give Ruby bigger breasts and various kinks, Calvin instead tries to make both his dream-girl-come-to-life as well as himself happy, and in doing so finds out how difficult it is to be with someone who is nothing more than a puppet.
The movie is, among other things, exceedingly well-cast. Dano's face has a boyishness that hints at his character's basic immaturity, but his eyes have a dark soulfulness that's quick to register pain or anger -- he often brings to mind Harold and Maude-era Bud Cort. He's particularly excellent in a scene where at a party he meets the ex-girlfriend who broke his heart, and gets into one final fight with her. Messina gets most of the best laugh lines, and knows that he doesn't have to push too hard when you're the only person getting to say outrageous things. Gould's engaged interactions with Calvin make him the therapist anyone would wish they had. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, as Calvin's mother and stepfather, make a lasting impression from just one scene in the film, and Steve Coogan lends his patented brand of sour insincerity to the role of Calvin's friend and fellow writer.
As good as they are, this is Kazan's movie. It's hard to find fault with her work here as an actress. She walks that MPDG line of annoying and ideal with fearlessness, and the best part is, because her screenplay makes sure we understand that Ruby behaves exactly how Calvin wants her to, we get frustrated with him instead of her. It's a brilliant conceit that forces viewers to reassess how we feel about characters like this, and allows the actress to go to extremes without overacting.
The writing is so sharply observed that the story works both as a portrait of an artist as an emotionally immature young man as well as a post-modern essay about MPDGs and the men who create them, but the script does have an annoying tendency to make the same dramatic point over and over again. They economically establish that Ruby's behavior changes whenever Calvin types more about her, but deep into the movie there are scenes that belabor this point -- he writes that she should never be sad and we are treated to numerous moments of Ruby being ceaselessly adorable. He pens that she is deeply attached to him, and what follows are repetitive scenes where she clings to him like a wounded puppy.
Even with the draggy pacing, though, the actors and the central idea are so good that Dayton and Faris never lose us completely. With their debut, Little Miss Sunshine, they proved capable of juggling an ensemble cast while delivering a quirky, humanistic comedy. Ruby Sparks doesn't have quite as broad an appeal, but it does show that the filmmaking duo can tell an effective story that goes deep into a single character.
Ruby Sparks on AllMovie
Ruby Sparks (2012)