Ruby Sparks (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

rubysparks sqI’ve come to respect the way it successfully comments on the whole manic pixie dream girl persona, while still having something bigger and more useful to say.

 

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Ever since film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl,” much has been written of this recent trend in American film. It’s a pretty easy to understand the topic, but to sum up, it’s in reference to a type of female character who is cute and quirky and funny, and seems to exist for no other reason than to pull the boring main male character out of his funk. (See, to varying degrees: Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, and Natalie Portman in Garden State.)

Ruby Sparks feels like one of those movies, at least at first. You might know going in, though, that, rather unusually for this type of movie (this has to have been the first time, even), the film was written by its manic pixie dream girl, Zoe Kazan. That is to say, 28-year-old Kazan (who is Elia’s granddaughter, if you’re curious, and who looks like a shorter and rounder-faced Maggie Gyllenhaal) both wrote the screenplay and plays the movie’s MPDG, the titular Ruby Sparks. And if you have this information, the direction the film eventually take may not take you by as much of a surprise, but you should find it fulfilling all the same.

The boring male lead for whom Ruby turns up is Calvin (Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Paul Dano), a writer in his late 20s who published a still wildly loved and successful novel in his late teens, and has never been able to follow it up. Early in the film, a girl named Ruby Sparks comes to him in a dream, fully formed. He takes her as inspiration and begins writing about the character, producing the first work he’s proud of in years, and falling in love with his fictional creation in the process. Not long after that, Ruby turns up for real in Calvin’s life—but it isn’t that she’s been real all along and he meets her, but that he somehow unintentionally created a real person. When they meet for the first time, she’s already long been his girlfriend, and is in his apartment wearing his clothes. Also, she doesn’t know that he created her. After some initial confusion on Calvin’s part, and disbelief from the one person he chooses to tell, his brother Harry (Chris Messina), the film eventually gets into the nature of dream girls, fantasy versus reality, and what it is that we all really want.

The film’s cast is interesting; Kazan has said in interviews that she wrote the part of Calvin with boyfriend Dano in mind (that doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement of Dano to me), and people like Messina, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderes are clearly having fun in smaller roles. Kazan is as likeable and well-ranged for this role as she needs to be, and Dano (here reteaming with his Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton)—who is sometimes astoundingly good (There Will Be Blood) and sometimes close to terrible (Gigantic, another Zooey Deschanel MPDG picture)—is just fine here. Also, the film gets extra credit for casting Arrested Development’s Maeby, Alia Shawkat, as a fan interested in Calvin; it’s a nice reminder that the AD movie is beginning shooting right around now.

I had the benefit of seeing the press screening of Ruby Sparks some two weeks before writing this review, and the review is more positive for it, as the movie has grown in my estimation in that time. My first impression was that it had a lot of good ideas and potential that it never quite lived up to, but now I’ve come to respect the way it successfully comments on the whole MPDG persona, while still having something bigger and more useful to say. One thing you’ll probably come away with is a wish to see more of Zoe Kazan, though, either as an actress or as a screenwriter; she’s talented at both. | Pete Timmermann

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