If you’ve experienced and been irritated by the overly quirky indie rom-coms that have come out in the wake of Garden State, you might understandably squirm in your seat during the first 20 minutes or so of Ruby Sparks. The movie seems to follow the Sundance sad-love formula so shamelessly that you’ll want to flee from your seat a beat the first person you see with a neckerchief, but stick with it. Though it might not seem that way initially, Ruby Sparks is actually a pleasant surprise that willfully deconstructs the indie comedy fantasy that the AV Club long ago dubbed “the manic pixie dream girl.” In the process, the film unexpectedly shifts out of being a twee hipster comedy and turns into something far more nuanced and complex that actually has something to say about relationships and the art that depicts them. It’s a far more intriguing movie than anyone could have expected, while also being sweet, simple, sappy and funny enough to give the less demanding audience who laps up gentle/sad rom-coms what they want without noticing all that criticism and self-effacing commentary.
Paul Dano stars as the only possible lead for this type of melancholic comedy: a depressed and lonely young man hopelessly in search of love. To further please the Sundance set, he’s also somewhat of a literary prodigy who wrote a massively successful novel at 18, but has done nothing since beyond the occasional minor short story. Dano is in desperate need companionship and has an inability to connect with people, so as a writing exercise for his therapist (Elliot Gould) he writes a little story about meeting his dream girl. The girl literally comes to him in his dream fully formed as a technology-scoffing free spirit and budding artist. He’s so enamored by the fantasy that he starts writing a backstory for the girl as well as the tale of the start of their relationship. The writing flows so easily that he starts to think it could be his long delayed second novel despite warnings from his brother that he’s writing a fantasy girl and not an actual woman. Then, somehow, one morning the fictional Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film) appears in Dan’s room as a real flesh and blood person. He’s frightened at first, but is so obsessed with his fantasy that he goes with it and continues the relationship as if, you know, there was no magic involved. Unfortunately, like all relationships the early dreamy days pass, Ruby starts acting like an actual person with needs and Dano panics. He tries to rewrite her to suit his needs and that works. It just never feels right.
In good conscience, I can’t reveal more and even getting into the rewrite section of the story seems unfair. It’s just important to explain what about Ruby Sparks elevates the material above the dozens of similar sad-guy meets quirky, irrepressibly happy girl. Zoe Kazan and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) acknowledge that popular movie type is an uptight man’s fantasy of a woman and not the real thing. By having those natural changes play out, the character becomes a satisfying metaphor for how that fantasy stage or early relationships can fade. When Dano tries to rewrite his girl, the new versions are inevitably never as satisfying as the imperfect reality, which is a nice comment on the B.S. central to similar movies, as well as how an artist’s creation can so easily spiral out of his control and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s a smart and mature take on the melancholic meet-cute relationship comedy without sacrificing all of the whimsical asides and gentle comedy required by the genre. The fact that it works is a minor miracle, but the movie chugs along sweetly, falling apart only in a final scene that’s satisfying, but rips off the ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so shamelessly it’s distracting. Ah well, could be worse.
Paul Dano is perfect in the lead role and is maturing into quite a strong dramatic actor with a knack for subtle comedy (a 180 from what his skill set seemed to be at the start of his career). Zoe Kazan most likely wrote the movie as a personal showcase and nails all aspects of the role so well that she could very easily become a low-budget It-girl with just the right combination of unconventional beauty, wit, and talent to pull it off. Supporting work is solid all around, particularly Steve Coogan’s scene stealing narcissist/agent (is there anyone better suited to such a role?). Only Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas’ quirk-driven parents feel like one note jokes rather than characters, which is a pretty high batting average for this sort of comedy. Dayton and Faris nurse out performances from their actors well and have the right sense of pacing as directors, but add little visually to what could have easily been a meticulously designed fantasy. That was probably the right choice, though it would have been interesting to see what a more ambitious filmmaker could have done with the material. I’m hesitant to over-praise Ruby Sparks because it probably works best as a pleasant surprise. Ultimately, you’ve seen this before. The pleasant change is in the playfully self-conscious deconstruction of the form. I guess you could say it’s the rom-quirk-com for folks who hate rom-quirk-coms and hopefully a few folks from that small and cynical audience will discover it.
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