Unseating the Dream Girl
You’ve seen the story in Garden State, (500) Days of Summer, and many other films. Boring, doltish man is in a rut meets a younger, beautiful, quirky woman. She wears indie dresses and colored tights and often has bangs. She’s definitely a little crazy, but that’s why he loves her so. She saves him from himself, from his meaningless life. Her name is Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and she’s a tired cliché.
At first glance, Ruby Sparks, the new film from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, seems to force another of these fantasy women into the pop culture lexicon. But instead, Dayton, Faris and one Miss Zoe Kazan, who stars as the titular Ruby (she scripted the film as well), take the dream girl and let us know the most important thing about her: she’s not real.
Ruby Sparks’ dull man is Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a burnt out writer who decides to draft his dream girl. Framed by angelic sunlit rays, she appeared to him one night in his dreams and then in real life one morning in his kitchen. Ruby has red hair and bangs, she’s a painter from Dayton, Ohio, she wears a red dress with purple tights and black Mary Jane heels. She loves zombie movies and cooking, and everything she says drips in sweetness and oddity. She spends her days playing and painting rather than working, she has a bike instead of a car, and she’s madly in love with Calvin.
The vital thing about Ruby, though, is that she’s made up. She’s a character from Calvin’s story, a fantasy the film is unafraid to hide. When Calvin shows his brother (Chris Messina) his first draft of the Ruby novel, he informs Calvin that, “quirky, messy women whose problems only make them appealing aren’t real” and he couldn’t be more right.
Ruby’s fakeness isn’t just a comedic device in the film; it’s a true dramatic problem. When Ruby comes to life, it’s not all fun and games and making her speak French just because he can. Rather, it’s a real review of the dreamy culture in which we are immersed, and how that can prevent us from being happy.
In one scene, Calvin’s ex-girlfriend Lila (Deborah-Ann Woll) analyzes him perfectly, remarking that he wanted to be in a relationship with himself, not with her. Lila’s comment lingers; at first, Calvin is deliriously happy to have his perfect woman, but as the film progresses, he wants more than that. He wants perfection — a robot, a slave. And suddenly, Calvin’s ceases to be a playful dream and emerges a sick nightmare.
Paul Dano and especially Zoe Kazan are excellent in the two leads, helping to anchor fantasy in reality. The film has an outstanding supporting cast, too, which includes Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s hippie-dippie mother and step-father, Elliot Gould as his off-beat therapist, and Steve Coogan as his quirky old teacher.