Saturday, January 12, 2013

Ruby Sparks (2012)

They're called manic pixie dream girls. The term itself comes from Nathan Rabin's article on Elizabethtown, as he described Kirsten Dunst's role in Cameron Crowe's flop as the following:
"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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let's just say I'm not going to propose to Dunst's psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon."
Now, the manic pixie dream girl is nothing new in cinema. They've existed, in one form or the other, since Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp was causing chaos to the amusement of moviegoers. But it wasn't until the past decade that the trope has come under fire, especially given high-profile examples such as Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer.

In the words of Harry (Chris Messina) in Ruby Sparks, "quirky, messy women who's problems only make them more endearing are not real." This is practically the film's thesis statement. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a "genius" novelist who's been suffering from writer's block in his attempts to follow-up his enormous previous success. At the behest of his therapist, he begins writing about his "dream" girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script), who then magically comes to life. Calvin discovers that as he writes her, she becomes whatever he writes. But as their relationship grows, she becomes more complicated, leading Calvin to make some tough decisions about what he really wants.

The interesting thing about the film is that, like (500) Days of Summer, the lead character  is really a self-absorbed jerk. Calvin is presented as a man who became a literary phenomenon at an early age, and never was able to relate to anyone other than himself. Dano's terrific in the role, but Calvin's not a character that's easy to like. Kazan's script seems to be making a point of this: the manic pixie dream girl is a fantasy for men who can't see anyone beyond themselves as full, complex human beings. Ruby, throughout the film, develops beyond the trope, becoming more of a human being and less of an idealized version of a woman. There's a brilliant feminist critique of the manic pixie dream girl trope here, and the film presents the much-needed criticism in a highly entertaining way.

Kazan delivers the film's best performance, imbuing Ruby with real soul and overcoming the quirks that Calvin writes for her. Messina, as Calvin's brother, gets some of the best lines of the film, and Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas pop up for an amusing segment as Calvin's mother and stepfather, respectively. Directors Valarie Faris and Jonathan Dayton - the team behind Little Miss Sunshine - bring a grounded approach to the film, never presenting it as whimsical or fantastic. The film takes a dark turn in it's third act, giving it more weight without sacrificing its overall tone.

Ruby Sparks is a stealthy comedy, sneaking in a critique of the manic pixie dream girl into a film that would appear, on the surface, to be no different from most films of that ilk. It's a smart, well-made film that entertains as it enlightens. B+

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