Actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, in a recent interview, was displeased when Ruby Sparks was presented as a prime example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl would-be indie film, because the title character, as she wrote and performed it in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' sophomore film, was more grounded and realistic than that facile, borderline misogynistic definition. True that.

     But Ms. Kazan has nobody else to blame but herself, for having written a character that is, literally, the embodiment of that internet-spread cliché. Ruby Sparks is a Dream Girl: a figment of a writer's imagination that magically came to life. Come to former whiz-kid and now severely blocked writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) in a dream, Ruby inspired him to write away a new novel that turns out to give her an actual existence and even define what her actions might be. And no, though she is literally a Dream Girl, Ruby is not so much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl as she is a comment on the ideal dream girl, and the way how even dream girls tend to escape the perfection of fantasy into the messiness of reality, as seen through the budding romance between writer and creation that turns sour when Calvin realises he cannot control life as if it were a novel.

     It's a smart premise, though hardly an original one; but there's the sense that the concept's jagged edges have been pretty much sandblasted away to make it a comfortable, eccentric romantic fantasy with enough of a feel-good factor to be non-threatening. This is disappointing because, in Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton's acclaimed debut, Little Miss Sunshine, they were able to keep those jagged edges on and still deliver a more heartfelt, more profound film, whereas here they are dealing with a high-concept idea that proves halting and stilted on the screen. Through no fault of the assembled cast, it must be said - though the by now classic indie trope of big-name actors roped in for supporting roles is getting long, and is here more distracting than necessary. Whether Ruby Sparks is a near-miss because of the script's conceit or the way Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton have misjudged it - nowhere more visible than in the brutally honest scene where Calvin reveals the truth to Ruby, so tonally different it seems to have come in from a wholly different film - is a moot point: it's still a near-miss.

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina, Alia Shawkat

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenplay: Ms. Kazan
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique (colour, processing by Efilm, prints by Deluxe)
Music: Nick Urata
Designer: Judy Becker
Costumes: Nancy Steiner
Editor: Pamela Martin
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa (Fox Searchlight Pictures and Bona Fide Productions in association with Dune Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 104 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, August 31st 2012


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