Amid a seemingly endless firestorm of quirky romantic comedies that constantly show men as tortured souls and women as endless founts of mirth that can break anyone out of their rut with a well timed song or a great record collection emerges a blast of fresh, cool air called Ruby Sparks. Expertly written, intensely thoughtful and emotional, and even a slight bit intellectual, the film has great fun sending up the standard “manic pixie dream girl” character that has run rampant in film for far too long by objectively looking at the mechanics behind it through the eyes of two very memorable characters.
After achieving great success early on in his writing career and following the dissolution of a particularly meaningful long term relationship, novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has coasted by on the success of his debut and finds he’s unable to break out of some crippling writer’s block. At the urging of his therapist to write him a story about anything at all, Calvin begins having dreams of a girl named Ruby (Zoe Kazan), full of all of the attributes he wants in a companion and lover. Aside from the obvious psychological help, Calvin keeps creating the character of Ruby until one day she magically appears in his kitchen like she had been there the whole time. At first, this naturally raises questions about Calvin’s sanity, but it soon becomes clear that Ruby is there to stay and that Calvin can write and change her any time he wants to.
From the outset, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (making their first film since they made waves with Little Miss Sunshine) position the characters in a world of fantasy not too far removed from our own. The idea of a person simply materializing from someone’s brain isn’t immediately accepted even by the directors, and their pacing of the story zips along so fast that nothing is every allowed to nag or eat away at the viewer.
The real power of the film comes from the script, written by Kazan, which amounts to a storytelling clinic. She confronts the notion of the much maligned “manic pixie dream girl” on film and exposes the cliché as being something no one would ever want to date in reality. The film has the guts to go to some pretty dark places starting around the halfway point when Calvin starts to find it necessary to begin making drastic changes so he’ll never lose Ruby, and this desire to talk about manipulative and unhealthy behaviour in relationships is nothing if not admirable.
Her on-screen muse here and real life boyfriend Dano gives a great assist to his other half with a finely nuanced performance of a man so constantly on edge that even his happier moments can lead him to dark places. As Ruby, Kazan plays the not so fictional dream girl as a wholly sympathetic entity; an adult Pinocchio that can’t control anything in her life because the creator could never cut the strings. The leads get a couple of nice assists from some old pros in small supporting roles, especially Elliot Gould as Calvin’s shrink and Steve Coogan as his somewhat seedy mentor and colleague.
Despite things coming together a little too pat in the final five minutes, Ruby Sparks really is the late summer film to beat in terms of overall quality. It will appeal to both romantics and those tired of all those silly little love songs (and movies) with equal parts grace and humour. If it were a book that its main character had written, it would deserve to be a best seller. As a smaller film opening in a large pond of summer blockbusters, it deserves to be given a real chance by audiences.
Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Top image: A scene from Ruby Sparks. Courtesy Fox Searchlight.