*Ruby Sparks (R)
In Ruby Sparks, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl gets moody. Yes, it goes against everything that the archetype, on her paper-thin legs, stands for.
If you're not familiar with the term, think a cute, quirky, heartbreaking, 20-something female version of the Magical Negro. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl comes into some poor schlub's life and is adorably perfect. She loves him because the script says so. He, obviously, loves her. And their love transforms him, while she remains flawless, unchanged. She is, the theory goes, a creation of men.
Star and first-time scripter Zoe Kazan tries to turn the idea of the MPDG on its head, and she's mostly successful. But at the beginning, Ruby (Kazan) is its very definition, springing from the dreams of blocked writer Calvin (Paul Dano) and onto his typewriter's page — and then, one day, into his house, in the flesh.
Calvin, a self-isolating, nerdy sort, is naturally freaked. Ruby, who has no clue about her origins, doesn't understand. She knows only that they're a couple, and Calvin's acting weird.
Kazan and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (producing their first film in six years, since Little Miss Sunshine) could have kept their fantastical rom-com at the slapstick level, with Calvin continually astonished that Ruby exists and remaining a little frightened of her. (Dano, in his most endearing performance yet, is pretty funny as he crouches around Calvin's white, spacious Los Angeles home, both spying on and hiding from his dream girl.) But Calvin and Ruby settle into a normal relationship, despite the excited proclamation of his brother (Chris Messina) once he realizes Calvin hasn't gone insane: "You could make her do anything!"
And there's where Ruby Sparks veers into something a bit more substantial than, say, (500) Days of Summer. Calvin initially refuses to "write" her anymore — literally, he can type, "Ruby speaks French," and damned if she doesn't flip her language switch — because he loves her as-is. But eventually, just as in a real relationship, things start to sour, and Calvin panics. Maybe he can change her just a little?
The film then leaves its twinkly love story behind to become more about issues such as co-dependence, control and accepting people as they are instead of how you wish they were. Most of it is played for laughs (such as when Calvin programs Ruby to, essentially, "clingy," and she cries while sitting beside him, "I miss you right now!"), but there's a dark and rather intense scene in which Ruby becomes his puppet, along with the usual heartbreak of a romance heading south.
Kazan, not a typical beauty, is still luminescent and lovable here, and plays each of Ruby's iterations with goofball precision. She and Dano are a couple in real life, a relationship that doesn't always translate on screen. But they're darling together, even if you always feel a nagging pity for the MPDG throughout, no matter how independent the character gets.
Ruby Sparks, unlike the cinematic motif from which it springs, is a rare creature: a smart romantic comedy that will leave you neither nauseated nor rolling your eyes.