Had my brilliant colleague Nathan Rabin only thought to copyright the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” he’d probably be a billionaire by now.
The most incisive little nugget of critical shorthand since Spike Lee’s “magical Negro,” Rabin’s now-ubiquitous meme was originally coined to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown—one of those nonthreatening, vaguely sexless, endearingly quirky and whimsical cuties who has no life, desires or interests of her own and exists only as a screenwriter’s device to facilitate the dour male lead’s eventual self-actualization. (See also: Natalie Portman in Garden State or Zooey Deschanel’s entire career.)
The inherent artifice of the MPDG phenomenon is the subject of Ruby Sparks. Or at least it is some of the time. Penned by 28-year-old actress Zoe Kazan, the movie’s better moments question what male authors are looking for in their female characters and how writing women as mere vapid support structures is an act of cowardly denial.
Unfortunately, those stray thoughtful concepts are buried in one confused picture. Wrapped up in confounding literary conceits that probably played great on the page, hobbled by one of the least appealing lead performances of this or maybe any year and directed with tone-deaf inconsistency at every turn, Ruby Sparks is a floundering mess.
Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weir-Fields, a hideously unpleasant young man who we are told wrote The Great American Novel when he was just a teen, but nowadays just wallows around in self-pity and writer’s block. His shrink allows him to clutch a teddy bear during therapy, and he seems to have a weird complex about his dog.
One night, Calvin falls asleep and imagines meeting Ruby Sparks (played by Kazan herself), a walking, talking index of Manic Pixie Dream Girl affectations, right down to the bangs and kooky stockings. Suddenly, he can’t stop writing about her. No, it’s not literature. It’s not even a story. He’s just writing an awful lot about some chick he wishes he knew.
And then Calvin wakes up to find Ruby Sparks making breakfast in his kitchen. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who previously helmed Little Miss Sunshine, have no clear idea how to handle the screenplay’s leap into magical realism. We’re stranded for far too long in Calvin’s visually stultifying empty white apartment, and they never find a way to nail down any sort of consistent logic behind Ruby’s existence.
This is exactly the kind of gimmick that Charlie Kaufman always makes look so easy. If you want to see how tricky it really is, take a look at Ruby Sparks for comparison’s sake. The movie wastes enormous amounts of screen time just getting Calvin to believe that she’s not a hallucination. Stalling for so long leaves the audience space to ask way too many questions, which is always fatal when it comes to such absurdist conceits.
Eventually, we are finally allowed to leave that horrid eyesore of an apartment, as Ruby does what MPDGs do and teaches Calvin to loosen up and enjoy life. Who cares if he made her up in his head, and this is all kind of playing out like Weird Science with a library card? They’re having fun, dammit!
The movie gets more interesting, though far more unpleasant to sit through, when Ruby finally gets a life and some friends of her own. Calvin begins to resent her independence, and takes back to the typewriter to start “fixing” their relationship. Here’s where Dayton and Faris’ lack of control torpedoes the movie, pushing sickly comic concepts into heavy-duty dramatic territory with often disastrous results. We’re also stuck back in that damn Kubrickian apartment.
Dano is the biggest problem. His droopy demeanor is fine for supporting characters but intolerable in leading roles; The more Ruby Sparks reveals Calvin as a petulant, controlling adolescent, the more one wants to just make like Daniel Day-Lewis and cave in his head with a bowling pin.
There’s no shortage of great ideas submerged somewhere in the muddle of Ruby Sparks, and for such a lousy movie, it has prompted a lot of interesting conversations about what men want from women. Too bad it’s such a slog to actually sit through. ■
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan