Ruby Sparks (2012)

28 Jun


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Ruby Sparks” is like a wake-up call to all hopeless romantics. Those searching for the “perfect one.” Those who ignore the notion that the Honeymoon Stage will end. Those who are only interested in a specific vision of said-“perfect one.” It’s not so easy, and I’m sure many people would agree with me. Relationships take time and practice in order for it to work. Certain problems can either be dealt with or ignored, depending on how much you care for a future with this person.

Take Calvin, the protagonist of the romantic-comedy “Ruby Sparks.” Calvin (Paul Dano) is a twentysomething author whose first novel, which he wrote just after high school, was very successful. But now, he has a bad case of writer’s block, is asocial, lives alone in his apartment with his dog, and has been through a nasty breakup. He’s also a hopeless romantic, hoping to find the “perfect girl” which his married brother, Harry (Chris Messina), says doesn’t exist. One day, his inspiration appears in a dream—a muse in the form of a beautiful woman named Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay for the film). She can’t possibly be real, says Harry. He may be right, but Calvin doesn’t want to believe that. So he decides to write a book about a fictional version of him in a relationship with Ruby. He falls in love with the character of Ruby, as he doesn’t want a real woman—he wants the “perfect woman.”

Then something magical happens. And when I say “magical,” I mean you just go with it, just like with “Groundhog Day” or “Stranger than Fiction.” Ruby has suddenly appeared into Calvin’s home, and also into his life. Calvin at first thinks he’s going crazy and just seeing her as a manifestation of his hope for “the one.” But no—it turns out that other people can see her too. She’s very, very real. She believes she’s real and has all of the personality traits and memories that Calvin has given her, so they’re actually in a relationship together.

But that’s not all. Calvin realizes that he can also change anything about her just by typing on his typewriter. He convinces Harry of this by having her speak fluent French without knowing it. When he realizes this, he finds he can’t help but try it again when he realizes that the relationship between him and Ruby has somewhat turned downhill, as they don’t see eye-to-eye on certain things, she becomes more independent, and he doesn’t see her as the “perfect woman” anymore. So he decides to make a few changes…

I’ve heard of authors falling in love with their characters, but this is ridiculous. And that’s part of the reason I adore this film. “Ruby Sparks” is that rare “magical” look at the creative process, in that the creator is passionate about a creation, in this case an author and a favorite character. What serves as inspiration for a new novel? Maybe a dream that represents a manifestation of something that a person yearns for, hopes for, wants to know more about, etc. Think of how an author must feel having to kill off a favorite character to bring the story to a more dramatic quality and effect. With “Ruby Sparks,” we have Calvin, who creates this character and has this magical event occur in his life that actually brings that character to life. He feels the responsibility to keep the character consistent to his original thoughts. But when she’s real, he can’t deal with it and tries to make things the way they were. But it’s not easy. He could have dealt with certain little issues by talking with Ruby, but instead, he changes her personality. First he makes it as if she’s miserable without him; she’s clingy beyond belief (she won’t even let him go to the bathroom without her). Then he brings her an endless amount of joy; she becomes an annoyance pretty fast. Every change he can make goes very wrong and he can’t seem to fix it. Can it be fixed? Should it even have been trifled with? What are Calvin’s responsibilities as his creator? Does he have the right to twist Ruby’s persona in order to satisfy his desires? The fantasy aspect of “Ruby Sparks” delighted me in the way it mixed romance and the creative process with a magic element. And I love how Kazan’s screenplay never explains how Ruby can exist. I don’t think I needed to know. It’s quite intriguing that way, and I was with it every step of the way. Even when it takes a tragic dark turn (which I might add, is very well-handled) later in the film, I was with it, wondering how it was going to play out.

I’ve always seen Paul Dano as an actor who can either be very solid or very annoying. Here, he’s very likable and identifiable, and his low-key performance makes the story even more effective. This is probably the best work I’ve seen from the actor whose résumé also includes memorable titles such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood.” Zoe Kazan, Dano’s real-life girlfriend, makes her writing debut and was previously seen in supporting roles in indie films such as “Me and Orson Welles” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” in which she also appeared with Dano. As an actress, she has an ethereal presence and an immense appeal. As a writer, she’s even better, knowing how to keep the narrative flowing, how to restrict myth from reality, and how to develop each character, even the supporting characters who could have been typical romcom walking clichés, but are given much personality and three dimensions.

Speaking of which, the supporting cast is just great. Chris Messina plays the type of role that is usually the wisecracking buddy, but the character is able to give helpful advice that makes sense. Annette Bening is a riot as Calvin’s hippie mother, and Antonio Banderas is even better as her lover; I have to wonder how a movie centering around them would play out. Steve Coogan is a sleazy author. Elliott Gould is a helpful shrink that Calvin turns to when he has writer’s block. The actors add light and color to what could have been thankless roles.

I mentioned before that “Ruby Sparks” does take a dark turn, and indeed it does, once the gravity of this bizarre event fully grabs hold of Calvin. This is a sequence that some viewers are divided upon. They either love it or hate it. As for me, this is the kind of descent into darkness that most romantic comedies don’t have the nerve to take a chance on. Without giving much away, it fits very well with the magic aspect and opens Calvin’s eyes to what he was looking for and what may or may not be real. It’s bleak, but effectively so.

“Ruby Sparks” is quite the unusual romance film. With Kazan’s screenplay and husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (whose previous film was “Little Miss Sunshine”), the aspects of the romantic comedy have been deconstructed into something that seems much like the typical one at first, but then develops into something more and ultimately, much deeper than you might expect. I admire that “Ruby Sparks” took chances in its story and characters, and to me, it pays off in a most refreshing way. I love this film.

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