Ruby Sparks isn’t actually a meta-movie, but to longtime A.V. Club readers in particular, it may feel like one, given the way it explores, reflects on, and rejects the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Paul Dano stars as a typical example of the wounded indie hero from films like Elizabethtown and Garden State: He’s a glum but soulful guy who’s lost his joy in life, but finds it again in the form of a bouncy, effervescent young woman (Zoe Kazan, who also scripted) who brings light and energy back into his life. The setup is rote, almost insulting, but it’s smarter than it looks: Once the pieces are in place, Kazan’s script reveals a deeper game.
Dano’s sullen protagonist is a high-school dropout who hasn’t produced a meaningful work in the decade since his debut novel made him rich and famous. Despising his fans and himself, he shuns people, apart from his married horndog brother (Chris Messina), his shrink (Elliott Gould), and his sleazy agent (Steve Coogan). Then he creates a bubbly character named Ruby (Kazan), and falls in love with her on the page. Shortly thereafter, in a never-explained development, she turns up in real life, convinced they’re a happy couple. His disbelief gives way to delight, until she gradually starts displaying an independent side he didn’t imagine for her, such as an easy ability to bond with the mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) whose free-spirited behavior still sends him into fits of sulky, childish disapproval. Threatened as she outpaces him in maturity and breadth, Dano takes advantage of his ongoing ability to rewrite and redefine his creation, and he sets out to create a more dependent, tractable version of her, with horrifying results.
Ruby Sparks is an erratic blend of light comedy and shattering grimness, and it’s unreliable in other ways, too. In particular, Messina’s character vacillates between piggish, insensitive lout, and insightful dispenser of the film’s themes, particularly when he reads Dano’s early pages about Ruby and gripes, “Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real… you haven’t written a person, you’ve written a girl.” But for all its scattershot nature and fairy-tale lightness, it’s still a daring movie, both for its pointed but humorous repudiation of familiar cinematic tropes, and for the way it leavens a fantasy romance with a subtly burgeoning, uneasy sympathy for an entire ill-used stereotype.
Ruby Sparks comments intelligently on how frustrating and unfulfilling it can be when a partner fails to live up to expectations—or worse, fails to help maintain cherished self-delusions—and how a mature relationship depends on both partners seeing past the expectations and delusions, and coming to grips with the real person below the wish-fulfillment and daydreams. But it’s also keenly aware of the relationship between art and artist, and the similar frustration when a created work doesn’t match the artist’s initial hopes and visions. And it’s particularly brutal about mocking and dissecting the all-too-common MPDG fantasy, in which a relationship partner is just a mindless happiness-generation machine. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (whose last feature, Little Miss Sunshine, was Dano’s breakout film) do a terrific job of keeping the film from becoming too goofy on one end, or too mean-spirited on the other. In the end, that might be the film’s most successfully established point: Relationships are often both those things, but to work, they need to find solider ground, far away from either.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Ruby Sparks' Spoiler Space.