There have been many movies about disaffected young men being brought out of their shell by romances with quirky young women. It has happened so often in the last decade that the phenomenon has been given a name: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. At first, Ruby Sparks seems to conform to the rules of the genre, but its metafictional elements largely allow it to subvert the pitfalls of the genre, the movie calling into question the very nature of these onscreen romances. The movie can’t quite sustain its cleverness all the way to the end, but in the moments that it does, Ruby Sparks is delightful.
Calvin (Paul Dano) wrote his first novel when he was just nineteen years old. It catapulted him into fame, the book hailed as a new American classic. Ten years later, however, Calvin has yet to follow up on that success. He’s having trouble writing, lacking the inspiration to put words on paper. But at the prodding of his psychiatrist, he begins to write about a girl that he encounters in a dream. Much to his surprise, that girl suddenly shows up in his apartment one morning. Ruby (Zoe Kazan) is the girl of Calvin’s dreams, but he realizes that she’s also his creation. What starts out as the ideal relationship turns difficult as Ruby exercises her will, and Calvin is tempted to change her.
The film is clever enough to acknowledge that fantasy romances aren’t real. It gets daring as it depicts scenes that would occur past the point most movies would end. Ruby’s collection of quirks get to stop being endearing, and Calvin is eventually confronted with the reality of relationships. It builds great drama in the disparity between the image of Ruby in Calvin’s head and the truth of her person. The movie can be clumsy in outlining its points, having its characters basically spell out the themes in extended conversations. But when it works, it’s glorious. The film dances on the edges of both comedy and tragedy, often capturing a smart mix of the two.
The movie does make one fatal mistake, however. This concerns the ending of the movie, so we can’t get into specifics. But the movie ends up betraying much of its own themes as it skews conventional in its final moments. For all the charm that the movie brings, it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth as it fails to consider the dynamics of its characters. Otherwise, the movie is perfectly enjoyable. The direction is more than competent, ably balancing the film’s often disparate tones. The editing gives the film a real sense of momentum, barreling through the stickier moments.
Paul Dano provides an interesting, somewhat edgy performance. He recalls Woody Allen at times, playing up the nebbish quality of his character. But he really excels in outlining the darker side of the personality, accessing control issues and outright selfishness. Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script, is perfect as the titular Ruby. She clearly has an attachment to the character, making the quirk feel a little more natural. Turns by Steve Coogan, Antonio Banderas, and Deborah Ann Woll are small but definitely memorable.
The ending of Ruby Sparks is a big enough misstep to affect the enjoyment of the entire movie. It is painfully misguided, the scene betraying much of what the film had already built up. In the final accounting, however, there is still more good in Ruby Sparks than there is bad. It manages to subvert expectations, using the allure of fantasy to depict a far more sober, truthful view of relationships than cinema is known to provide.