‘Ruby Sparks’ is genuinely charming despite some minor roadblocks
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Zoe Kazan
The old axiom about something being too good to be true gets the feature-length treatment in Ruby Sparks, a quirky comedy-drama about a young writer who falls in love with a character he created, after she inexplicably comes to life. Writer and co-star Zoe Kazan attempts to explore the notion of how men in their 20s and 30s perceive women in a subtly derogatory and detrimental way, but her script gets muddled near the end. Skewering the idea of the quirky twentysomething girl who exists solely to romantically save the leading man—coined a “manic pixie dream girl” by The AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin—is a fertile idea, but the execution, as a whole, falters. Kazan, at least, is joined by a sterling cast including Paul Dano, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas, who help elevate the material.
Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, an author struggling with writer’s block and the pressure of following up his massively successful first book, published when he was a 19-year old high-school dropout. Encouraged by his therapist (Elliott Gould), Calvin writes about a fictional person liking his skittish dog, using inspiration from a mysterious recurring dream. The figure of that dream is Ruby (Kazan), a striking young woman whose presence in the exercise inspires him to write a detailed biography of her life. In doing so, he somehow brings her off the page, into reality. As Calvin deals with the at-first heady and then aggravating fallout of a work of fiction walking and talking like a real person, he has to face his own romantic demons.
The slightly menacing undercurrent of Ruby Sparks, the idea that our protagonist is disturbingly selfish and unreliable, is strangely more admirable when it’s bubbling below the surface. The first hour or so hits a knowingly offbeat and charming tone, often getting big laughs, whether it’s in Dano’s initially dumbfounded reactions to Kazan cavorting around his house or in Messina (as Calvin’s hotshot brother) getting giddy at the idea of literally controlling the actions of a member of the opposite sex. But things take a turn, and while exposing Calvin as a seriously flawed individual is the right way to go, the constant reversals end up giving the audience whiplash. What works best about Ruby Sparks are mere hints of something darker.
Kazan’s script never tells us everything about Calvin’s past, giving us a morsel here and there about his past relationship ending acrimoniously. The more we learn about who Calvin was before the film began, the more he becomes a three-dimensional character, not just a goofy nebbish with some social awkwardness. The problem isn’t in presenting a three-dimensional character, though; it’s a case of the script wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. The cast is uniformly solid, but the third act (which could’ve been shorter, frankly) is a mess, vacillating between creepy undertones writ large and being light and frothy.
Ruby Sparks is a notable release partly because it’s the first film directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have helmed since their feature debut, the Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine. Both films share an eccentric yet somewhat unsettling, dark sensibility, and both feature Dano, though he’s far more present here. Ruby Sparks, unlike Little Miss Sunshine, has a unique and galling way of representing the passage of time, in that it does so poorly. Examples include Calvin explaining the pages and pages he’s written about Ruby, or Calvin and Ruby’s relationship moving out of the honeymoon phase. It eventually becomes clear that a protracted amount of time has passed, but the disorienting feeling is abrupt and unnecessary. Otherwise, Dayton and Faris’s work behind the camera is fine without being too arresting one way or the other.
And as mentioned, the ensemble cast—though Dano and Kazan are absolutely the film’s leads—work wonders. Bening and Banderas, as Calvin’s mother and stepfather, are only in a few scenes but are a welcome respite from Calvin and Ruby being connected at the hip and shunning outside company. Their characters are essentially comic fodder, but the fun they’re having is so infectious, it’s a shame when they leave. The real standout is Messina, who manages to never make Calvin’s brother seem too loutish or brutish despite emphasizing an almost outrageous macho sensibility. He and Dano don’t look like brothers, but the chemistry they have is just as strong as what Dano has with Kazan.
Do men idealize women too much (and vice versa)? How damaging is that to a relationship? Who’s at fault? These are fascinating questions, and the cast is charming enough to make the film work well enough even if the questions aren’t asked or answered correctly. However, Ruby Sparks almost surprises its audience by posing those questions so directly at the end of its high-concept story; it’s a roadblock the film can’t overcome.
– Josh Spiegel