REVIEW: Ruby Sparks [2012]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 104 minutes | Release Date: July 25th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director(s): Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Writer(s): Zoe Kazan

“I will never write about her again”

The debut screenplay from actress Zoe Kazan includes moments ringing absolutely true and others completely false. I can’t stop thinking about Harry Weir-Fields (Chris Messina) giving his brother Calvin (Paul Dano)—the film’s lead—notes on his new, very rough manuscript. Asking without a shred of patronization who the target reader is, he doesn’t believe the women inclined to read romances will care about a quirky, damaged girl with little going for her besides being the object of a man’s affections. It’s obvious to Harry that Calvin simply doesn’t understand women and still hasn’t gotten over the one relationship he’s experienced. What he’s written is romantic fluff catered to the kind of men who avoid the genre like the plague. And as a result, so too has Kazan.

Ruby Sparks unfolds as though written by Calvin’s generalized, idyllic viewpoint on relationships. After all, the plot does concern a successful introvert who imagines his dream date as a cure for writer’s block and in effect manifests her into reality out of thin air. It’s a grown-up Weird Science with an immature, naïve kid needing his ideal lover to wake him from the doldrums of the self-important, chauvinistic mentality his emotional instability has created. A ‘genius’ to hoards of fans still enraptured by his ten-year old first novel, he is really a meek control-freak unable to accept the slightest bit of conflict. Powerless to change those in opposition, he quickly shuts them out and retreats into the one place they cannot touch him—his mind.

What unfolds, however, doesn’t occur behind closed eyelids. Ruby’s (Kazan) twenty-six year old painter from Dayton, Ohio who began as an energetic escape becomes a fully formed beauty standing at Calvin’s kitchen counter making eggs. She somehow leaps off the page and into his life in the kind of impossible fantasy you’d think someone like Charlie Kaufman would write with the visual flights of fancy his frequent collaborators are wont to create. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris aren’t inclined to go the route of Michel Gondry‘s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, deciding instead to remain in reality by forcing their characters to suspend as much disbelief as we must in the audience. Ruby exists without us knowing how because only the ‘why’ matters.

It’s through her physical presence that Calvin discovers the capacity to grow. He needs to literally control something in order to understand his desire to do so with those he can’t. Ruby is intriguing because while written from a guy’s perspective, her effect on her creator is the wake-up call many women surely wish their stubborn boyfriends and husbands would receive. By turning Calvin’s muse into a construct of negative stereotypical feminine traits—mercurial, clingy, and vapid—we actually witness how damaged he has become. Harry may have felt the original text-based Ruby lacked authenticity without the dark, dirty secrets of humanity, but she still had the potential to cultivate them. The Rubys Calvin embellishes when those traits develop are the ones trapped in a two-dimensional stasis unable to evolve.

Getting to this revelation is unfortunately an over-long journey that could have benefited from a much tighter pacing. While I loved the bit parts from Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as the Weir-Fields matriarch and her new husband, I don’t think we needed them to show us how emotionally stunted Calvin is when we’ve already received ample proof. They are the free-spirited opposites of their son’s rigidity and they do provide the story with an excuse for Ruby to uncover the cracks inherent to any utopic union of love, but I wish Kazan could have found another way. The wait to get to Calvin’s inevitable crisis of conscience and show of devastatingly absolute power is too long to make its arrival as impactful as it should.

The story’s genius is the reality this lovable girl is a puppet and the way Kazan and Dano portray their roles to that end is utter perfection. But at some point along the way I forgot morality’s integral piece to the puzzle. Everything begins to settle in so well that I started to watch the film as a romantic comedy without its deeper meaning—a subversion hindering its ultimate success. Calvin should become numb to what’s happening, but we shouldn’t. We need to remain vigilant in knowing what he’s done is wrong and how any living creature without full autonomy is just the tragic end product of slavery. Yes, he must learn the error of his ways, but at what cost?

I know this could be exactly Kazan’s point—to make us feel horrible in our complacency—but that doesn’t mean I can forgive her for the manipulation when the film was working so well without it. She could have easily gone into cliché with Elliott Gould‘s therapist muddying fact and fiction and yet instead made it so Ruby Sparks could be nothing but real. It was a brave choice forcing us to project certain rules upon her character we knew couldn’t be true and yet had to be. This allowed the film to grow darker in order to open our protagonist’s heart to the fact he didn’t know what it meant to share, compromise, and really listen to love’s wants and desires.

Kazan’s script is built on contrivance and its embrace of that fact saves it from being as familiar and convenient as many would think. I loved Calvin’s panic attack at Ruby’s arrival, Harry’s y-chromosome getting his mind spinning with possibilities of her subservience, and the way this impossible creation naturally becomes a real person. Ruby only devolves into parody when Calvin is threatened and scared that his relationship problems could in fact be his fault. She therefore ends up the most authentic character of the piece, trying her best to satisfy her needs and his. But the line blurs too much too early to really drive that realization home.

[1] Actress/writer Zoe Kazan as “Ruby” and actor Paul Dano as “Calvin” on the set of RUBY SPARKS. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton
[2] Paul Dano as “Calvin” on the set of RUBY SPARKS. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton
[3] Annette Bening as “Gertrude” and Antonio Banderas as “Mort” on the set of RUBY SPARKS. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton

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