Intentionally or otherwise, Ruby Sparks is something of a minor masterpiece

Tuesday October 9th 2012

It might have gone by a different name, featured other actors and included marginally more obscure indie music, but trust me when I say that you have seen Ruby Sparks before. You have seen the film in which a brilliant but brooding young writer protagonist agonises over his latest creation (composed entirely on a typewriter, natch) while worshipping at the alter of the great male writers who came before him and pondering whether he’ll ever truly measure up to them. You have seen the film in which said protagonist meets a girl and is struck by a sudden burst of creative genius, pouring his soul out onto the page in a flurry of frantic clickety-clack typewriting and ‘oh my god the words are flowing through me!’ facial expressions. You have seen the film in which that girl is a sexually confident painter with a troubled past who considers ‘going to a zombie film festival and doing shots whenever someone gets bitten’ to be a viable date option, and lives to tell her brilliant but brooding young writer protagonist boyfriend how amazing he really is. Let’s be honest: you’ve probably seen this film three or four times since January.

Luckily, that’s precisely the point. Yes, the now infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl label — 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’ — is more easily applied to Ruby, the titular love interest played by the film’s writer Zoe Kazan, than almost any other female character in recent memory. But unlike her manic pixie peers, Ruby is the creation of a fevered imagination a little closer to home: that belonging to Calvin Weir-Fields, the film’s brilliant but brooding protagonist.

Yep, Ruby is Calvin’s creation — a character in his new book. So when she’s magically thrust into the real world to become his girlfriend, her dissimilarity to a real human being should come as no surprise. After all, she’s essentially a walking piece of wish fulfilment, a descendant of the supernatural love interests from Weird Science and Mannequin. But her eerie resemblance to so many contemporary indie heroines — the very ones Rabin sought to label — pushes the film beyond being simply a feature-length episode of The Queen’s Nose, in which Calvin learns to be careful what he wishes for, and into something much more pressing: a stinging indictment of the lazy male bias of today’s Sundance set.

Watching the sweetly unassuming veneer of Dano’s character crumble into a pit of egomania, we soon see that he’s not in fact the brilliant but brooding protagonist — he’s the kind of self-absorbed asshat who comes up with brilliant but brooding protagonists. Through them, he’s able to justify his narcissism as insecurity, and transform his snobbishness into a sort of bashful charm. In short, he’s not Zach Braff in Garden State, he’s Zach Braff out of Garden State.

A horribly pat conclusion does everything it can to convince you that no, this is in fact a lighthearted romantic comedy with a loveable male lead (he replaces the typewriter with a MacBook to clue us in that he’s changed for the better) but by then the damage has been done: Kazan has peered behind the curtain of an archetype both blandly ubiquitous and dangerously insidious, and come away with one of the most thoughtful, brilliant films about filmmaking in ages. Brilliant, but brooding.