A film review by Craig J. Koban September 11, 2012

RANK:  #17

RUBY SPARKS jjjj
 

2012, R, 104 mins.

 

Calvin: Paul Dano / Ruby: Zoe Kazan / Mort: Antonio Banderas / Gertrude: Annette Bening / Langdon: Steve Coogan / Dr. Rosenthal: Elliott Gould / Harry: Chris Messina

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris / Written by Zoe Kazan

RUBY SPARKS has far more thematic ambition than most other romcoms.  It certainly is an obligatory love story, to be sure, but not in the literal or conventional sense at all.  It’s more purely a fantasy love story in the essence that it concerns a somewhat creatively stymied writer that has dreams of his “perfect” woman, writes about her, and then finds her miraculously materializing before his eyes as he writes about her.  She displays every solitary characteristic trait that he has described in his prose, and even when he spontaneously types something down in terms of new behaviors for her on his trusty old typewriter, she immediately displays the very same quirks. 

The genius of RUBY SPARKS - beyond its agreeably peculiar premise – is that it’s more deeply invested in so many other compelling elements beyond the standard accouterments of the romcom genre: It’s a meditation on the creative process; the paralyzing insecurity that arrives with writer’s block; a bitter examination of the damning nature of male desire and the fragility of the inflated male ego; and a metaphor for how men sometimes enter into relationships with the best of intentions and then become obsessive control freaks.  And, yes, it does deal with how real love in life works.  Oftentimes, you fall head over heels for someone because you feel that they are identical to you in every conceivable ways, but the key to staying in love is to mutually grow to discover and later accept your inherent and respective differences.   

Calvin (Paul Dano, in one of his most believably lived-in and emotionally vulnerable performances) plays Calvin, a twentysomething and once prodigious author who made a real name for himself with his first published work in his late teens, but is now facing crippling writer’s block.  Worse yet is that he's introverted and uninterested in spending anytime with anyone from the outside world, with the possible exception of his brother (Chris Messina) and his therapist (Elliot Gould).  He has one loving relationship…with his dog…and even with that he is somewhat negligent.  When he’s not begrudgingly engaging in Q&A programs discussing his first and most famous work, he secludes himself in his antiseptic white walled apartment.  He still is interested in women, I guess, but seems less encouraged by perusing relationships with them, seeing as most are more interested in his celebrity status as a writer than they are for him as a human being. 

 

 

Calvin, alas, still looks for love, but like most nitpicky and shortsighted men, love of the self-imposed “perfect kind.”  He begins to have dreams of his ideal woman, who is named Ruby Sparks.  From there, he begins to write a novel about Ruby and finds himself so taken in with her that he desperately yearns for her to be real.  It is at this point where the film gets…a little weird.  Without warning one day, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) instantaneously appears in Calvin’s apartment, which immediately leads to him thinking that’s he's hallucinating.  Yet, when he goes out in public everyone else around him does see Ruby as well, which curtails any thoughts crossing through Calvin’s mind that he’s nuttier than a fruitcake, but it still nonetheless does not help to explain how she came to be.  All Calvin knows is that his dream woman is real and adores him back.  What possibly could go wrong with this situation? 

Well…a lot, which is why RUBY SPARKS slowly segues from its initial fairy tale quirkiness to something more decidedly dark and chilling.  At first, Calvin and Ruby are happy, content, and hypnotically in love.  Yet, slowly but surely, the façade of their hopelessly idealistic relationship begins to wane when Calvin realizes that their perfect love is imperfect because she’s a product of his imagination.  Even though she appears flesh and blood with a myriad of feelings, Ruby is a persona that Calvin concocted.  When her mood or disposition changes in undesirably ways, Calvin sits down and gleefully types out a new set of behavioral qualities for her to have, which begins to seriously backfire in unwanted ways.   The more he methodically and rebelliously changes who Ruby is, the less desirous she becomes to him. 

RUBY SPARKS was written by its star, Kazan – granddaughter of Elia – and her first screenplay is uncommonly intriguing, intelligent, thoughtful, and cheerfully void of Hollywood genre pretensions.  I find it fascinating that a woman wrote a film like this focusing on the male perspective about how one a man conjures up his idyllic vision of a woman and is forced - like Victor Frankenstein before him - to deal with his “creation” run amok.  She seems to have her finger on the pulse of what makes many men tick, from their narcissism to their insecurities to their loneliness and, more importantly, to their incessant desire to be a domineering puppet master in relationships as a form of emotional compensation.  Even more intoxicating is how Kazan’s script serves as a metaphor and damning testimony to the ways that many romantic comedies of the past and present – many written by men – have fabricated female characters that are more black and white plot devices of lazy convenience.  The way Calvin dutifully types away and writes a new path for Ruby to facilitate his needs has eerie echoes to how many contemporary film writers function. 

That’s not to say that Kazan’s script is anti-male.  No, Calvin – for all of his twisted manipulations – is really more of a wounded and hapless man that gets in over his head than he is a despicable and hurtful person.  The 28-year-old Dano – who looks like a skinny, baby-faced, semi-dweeby, and dopey eyed Christian Bale – is perfectly cast as Calvin and convincingly encapsulates a flawed adult mind that still sees women from the mindset of an adolescent; he has an understated manner of harnessing his role’s inherent pathos and humor.  He works marvelously with Kazan (his real life girlfriend) who perhaps has the trickiest assignment of playing a make-believe woman that feels believable at every turn and then is forced to convey wild, alarming, and bipolar mood swings as a result of Calvin trying to change her for the better. 

RUBY SPARKS marks a wonderful sophomore effort of directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, who previously made the critical adored (especially by me) six-year-old indie-darling LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.  Like that film, RUBY SPARKS reveals the husband and wife filmmaking duo as one that understands the finer and more problematic intricacies of human behavior while framing that within a story that’s quirky, funny, touching, magical and speaks to sophisticated truths and takes many unpredictable narrative detours.  RUBY SPARKS is the most inventive romcom to be released since (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, and even though they are fairly dissimilar, both films take novel approaches in dissecting what it means for young, impressionable, and naïve men to succumb to the elation of falling in love and then later crash hard when dealing with ill-timed hardships that can either hold up or capsize relationships. 

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