It’s no surprise that the trailer for Ruby Sparks inspired dread in some film journalists. Here she was again, it appeared: That perky, quirky, romantic heroine dubbed by pop-culture writer Nathan Rabin “the manic pixie dream girl” who existed solely to teach Our Hero important lessons in life and love.
But in the same way that Brave is “about” animated princesses only in the sense that it subverts the trope, Zoe Kazan’s script for Ruby Sparks turns the MPDG inside-out. Her fanciful premise tells the story of Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), whose debut novel written as a teenager became a literary sensation. He has spent the subsequent decade, however, wallowing in writer’s block—until an assignment from his therapist (Elliott Gould) leads him to write about the woman (literally) of his dreams. And then he walks into his kitchen one day and finds that the girl he created on the page, Ruby (Kazan), has come to actual flesh-and-blood life.
Kazan and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris—who worked with Dano in Little Miss Sunshine—take a real risk in making Calvin a narcissistic mess of a guy. Wrapped up in his self-image as a sensitive tortured artist—he bangs away on a manual typewriter and broods over the loss of his dead father and his previous girlfriend—Calvin finds it impossible to interact with real people or create anything meaningful. When he realizes his ongoing writing can make Ruby do whatever he wants, he becomes a creepy stand-in for unhealthy relationships of all kinds.
That’s what makes Kazan’s story so compelling: It’s an assault on women existing in art—and the world—strictly as male accessories. The conclusion may offer a slightly too upbeat resolution in relation to what precedes it, but it’s terrific as a case study in narcissism masquerading as true love.
Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan