Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Movie Review: Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.
Written by: Zoe Kazan.
Starring: Paul Dano (Calvin Weir-Fields), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Chris Messina (Harry), Annette Bening (Gertrude), Antonio Banderas (Mort), Aasif Mandvi (Cyrus Modi), Steve Coogan (Langdon Tharp), Toni Trucks (Susie), Deborah Ann Woll (Lila), Elliott Gould (Dr. Rosenthal), Alia Shawkat (Mabel).

Ruby Sparks is seemingly a movie about a nice, sweet, shy, lonely writer named Calvin (Paul Dano), who had a huge success with his debut novel as a teenager, and has since been crippled with writers block. He goes to a shrink (Elliot Gould), who gives him a simple writing assignment – come up with a character that sees all the flaws in Calvin’s dog – Scottie – and loves him anyway. That night, he dreams up such a girl – Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), and for the first time in years, he cannot stop writing. Ruby is everything he ever wanted in a girlfriend. And then, one morning, he wakes up and Ruby has moved off of the page and into his house. He has conjured Ruby up in his mind, and she is now real.

Ruby Sparks starts out a fun, lightweight, charming little romantic comedy, but slowly and surely becomes more serious as it goes along. When it starts, it feels like a goofy comic fantasy – where Calvin is finally able to get the girlfriend he has always wanted – all he had to do was create her. That opening scene where Ruby shows up in his life are blissful – and allows Calvin to cocoon himself in that bliss. He doesn’t know and doesn’t care why Ruby materialized in his life, he’s just so happy that she did. But then Ruby does something he is not expecting – and starts to become a real person. And when she starts to do that, it brings out Calvin’s darker side. He starts to worry that he won’t be good enough to keep her around long term. And although he has refrained from writing about her since she became real, the temptation to control her becomes too great for him to resist. The further the movie goes along, the deeper it gets – and the more profound statement on writing it becomes.

The film was written by Zoe Kazan, who has written herself one hell of a role in Ruby. It allows her to be quirky and lovable throughout much of the film, and then go through one change after another as Calvin starts to screw with her “character”. Kazan is great in the role, which could easily become a star making performance for her (for those us who saw The Exploding Girl have known for a while how great she can be – now hopefully more will realize it). But I think she shows even more promise as a writer than an actress in Ruby Sparks. The screenplay recalls the work of Charlie Kaufman – a more lightweight version, but still a good one – particularly Adaptation, which was also about writing. The screenplay is about a writing who controls everything his “character” does, and changes her as he goes along. The screenplay for the movie mirrors this – as Calvin slowly evolves as the movie goes along as well. It’s not so much that he changes as it is that the movie slowly reveals more and more about him. When we finally meet his “horrid” ex-girlfriend, that he has complained numerous times throughout the movie, everything about him snaps into focus. He is not quite as innocent and sweet as he appears to be. While Kazan goes through much more obvious changes – often from one scene to the next – Dano may actually have the more complex role here, as his changes are more gradual, yet severe, when they do occur. Calvin wants to control everything in his life the way he is able to control Ruby – and that is the real reason why he thinks she is perfect – because he can control everything about her. But that love isn’t real if she’s only with him because he forces her to be with him. The movie is called Ruby Sparks, but it is Calvin’s story.

The film was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris, who together made the wonderful comedy Little Miss Sunshine six years ago, and have spent the intervening years apparently looking for an appropriate follow-up. In Ruby Sparks, they have found an appropriately funny and smart comedy to make their second film. They handle to comedy at the beginning of the film, and slow darkening of the material as it goes along wonderfully. Yes, at times Ruby Sparks seems to be more of a writers exercise than anything else, but it never fails to engage and entertain as it goes along. It may seem like Ruby Sparks is little more than a lightweight romantic fantasy – but it’s really much deeper than that. This is that rare comedy that sticks in your head – the more you think about the film, the more complex it gets.

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