If there’s one new cinematic term that can provoke positive and negative emotion it’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, the catch-all phrase has been heavily praised and dismissed by both film fans and filmmakers, with writer and star of Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan, coming down heavily on the against side. Which seems odd, because if there’s one film that should make it impossible to ever invent a female character purely for the pleasure of the male lead, it’s the rather excellent Ruby Sparks.
Calvin is a writer attempting to bring to life his difficult second novel. He’s also a singleton who, to use his brothers words “couldn’t get laid in his dreams.” And in his dreams he sees the same girl – porcelain skin, bright tights and bangs – night after night. On advice from his shrink Calvin writes about this girl, giving her the name Ruby Sparks, and imagining how they would interact. When he ventures into his kitchen for breakfast to find his dream girl cooking him eggs, complete with every peculiarity and eccentricity Calvin has given her, the writer rightly worries for his mental state. Until he discovers, that others can see Ruby too and that she is very, very real.
Without wanting to spoil the surprise, it’s fair to warn those that may have stumbled across Ruby Sparks looking for a kooky, fun time that the movie only begins this way. It’s also right that those very same people aren’t put off by the darkness inherent within, because those occupying their cinemas looking for affirmation of their personal pursuits of movie-style romances, complete with idealistic, fluffy, utopian views of coupledom, are exactly the people that Ruby Sparks can help. A generation that – without coming across too Rob from High Fidelity – have been damaged by pop culture into believing in such.
As Micheal Haneke’s Funny Games did with movie violence, Ruby Sparks does with movie romance. As science-fictiony as the premise is, the substance of the movie is grounded in reality. The idea of someone looking for the “perfect one” and trying to mould that person (male or female) to fit their own ideal is a relationship destroying tactic that echoes far and wide. That reality is invented here, not just from an exceptional script savvy to this particular pitfall but also thanks to the talented leads.
It’s often said that if an actor and actress are together in real life, the spark is lost on-screen. Here actual couple Dano and Kazan prove that fine acting triumphs aged adages, delivering two young lovers who encapsulate the highs and lows of an early relationship before insecurities and control-issues send them both spiralling toward the abyss. In a perfect world Kazan would find herself winning awards both sides of the camera, her The Red Shoes inspired crescendo plastered with the phrase “For Your Consideration”, precisely for the reason it never attempts for one second to be awards bait.
The symmetry of Kazan inventing and playing an invented character to launch herself onto the cinematic consciousness is the cherry on an exceedingly good cake.
A romantic comedy with something very important to say to people who invest in romantic comedies, Ruby Sparks is a modest triumph, brought to life by an intelligent screenplay and anchored by two fine performances. Highly recommended.