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Movie Review: “Ruby Sparks”

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Here’s a surprising gem of a film, one that’s both delightful to watch and a shockingly cutting critique of numerous well-worn cinematic tropes.

“Ruby Sparks” has a delicious high concept: a hipster novelist (Paul Dano), whose mega-success in his early 20s has given way to an extended bout of writers’ block ever since, daydreams of a quirky fantasy girl (Dano’s real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan), and begins to structure a new novel around her. But then one day she emerges, fully sentient and alive, as a human being- one he can control just by writing a paragraph on his hipster-approved typewriter.

The film appears to start off as a twee, “(500) Days of Summer”-like indie romance, one with a similar conceit to such ’80s comedies as “Mannequin” and “Weird Science,” in which the love interest was literally created by the male protagonist.

But “Ruby Sparks” slowly gets darker as it goes on, and turns eventually into a pretty radical rejoiner to traditional storytelling conventions- and one that all but obliterates Nathan Rabin’s famous “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” concept. That’s made possible by the MPDG herself- Kazan- having conceived the movie and written the screenplay.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope was coined by the AV Club’s Rabin in a 2005 article. Referring to characters like Natalie Portman’s in “Garden State” and Kirsten Dunst’s in “Elizabethtown,” the MPDG was defined as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but Kazan’s script acts as a pretty devastating deconstruction of the idea.

Kazan said in a Q&A after the screening that the idea came from the “Pygmalion” myth, although there are also echoes of the second half of Vertigo, in which Jimmy Stewart slowly turns into a controlling sociopath, as well as one scene very reminiscent of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a movie that came before the Rabin essay but included Kate Winslet’s “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive” speech.

“Ruby Sparks” was directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, in their first new project since the 2006 indie hit “Little Miss Sunshine,” a movie that, quite honestly, I’ve always kind of detested. But they do a fine job here, directing Kazan’s Oscar-nomination-caliber script.

The film is also helped by a super-deep supporting cast that includes the likes of Elliott Gould (a therapist), Steve Coogan (Dano’s sleazy mentor), Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas (Dano’s mom and her new boyfriend), Chris Messina (his brother) and Deborah Ann Woll, from True Blood, as his old girlfriend. Even long-forgotten former Larry Sanders Show actor Wallace Langham shows up in one scene.

Ultimately, “Ruby Sparks” is a deep, very satisfying film that shows Zoe Kazan as a true revelation, both as an actress and writer. She’s deserved to break out as an actress for a long time, and with this movie she just might finally do it.

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