Mark Reviews Movies

Ruby Sparks


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 7/25/12 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 24, 2012

Screenwriter Zoe Kazan takes a whimsically fantastical idea and sees it through to its inevitably bitter end. Ruby Sparks starts in earnest with a flight of fancy: A writer not only manages to create life just from the effort of his imagination and the punching of keys on his typewriter but also brings into existence the girl of his dreams. For as much of a sad, solitary loner as this particular writer is, this scenario was probably his only hope for a romantic relationship anyway.

The film has big ideas but doesn't dwell on them. Certainly, there's a discussion of such concepts as Free Will, Human Nature, the nature of Consciousness, and the like, but Kazan's screenplay sees these in terms of its central relationship, which begins a giddy romp of montages of dates and statements of how happy the two are. We believe them: He hasn't had a relationship in years; she has no other choice and no say in the matter. Her side of the relationship—that she was literally created just for him—is where we can sense things are wrong from the beginning.

The writer is Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a prototypical wunderkind. He wrote his first—and, as it turns out, only—novel at an age when his classmates were only reading great works of literature as assignments. The book, now seeing a special 10th-anniversary printing, became something of a classic in its own right (We are meant to think of J. D. Salinger, and, indeed, someone offers the not-so-helpful advice to Calvin that "Salinger had it right"). The talk around him on the rare occasion he goes out in public to socialize with other people always predicts a sophomore slump whenever he does manage to get around to writing a second book.

Calvin has a severe case of writer's block; he sits in front of his typewriter, willing himself to write something—anything. He jumps up to grab the phone when it rings, hoping for any excuse to step away from this torture.

Calvin's been seeing a therapist (Elliott Gould) for some time, and the talk during their sessions focuses either on his inability to write or the disastrous ending of a relationship about five years ago. He's never forgiven the girl for leaving him after his father's death; he needed her then, most of all the times he could have needed her. The therapist assigns him to writes something bad, just to get going.

This is all cute and insightful and, above all, familiar. We forgive the exposition's third quality because of its second. Here is a common character made less so by Kazan's keen sense of what makes him tick and how a tangled web of self-prophesizing defeat has turned him into a shell of a man. Whatever potential he may have had at one point has been lost.

He begins to write anyway, inspired by a dream he has of a young woman talking to him like a normal human being and not a once-successful and now struggling star of the literary world. She knows enough to know that he named his dog after F. Scott Fitzgerald in an attempt to kill his idol, and she's all for that.

Calvin, on the other hand, knows everything about this girl; he eventually sits down and writes her extensive backstory, from her rebellious teenage years to her troubled 20s. All she really wants, he writes, is a nice guy who will treat her well. He writes that character in his manuscript, too, and names him "Calvin." His brother Harry (Chris Messina), a cynical man in spite of his own good fortune, insists that women like that do not exist.

Then she appears in the real world; her name is Ruby Sparks (Kazan, in something of a meta-joke as the screenwriter materializes into the film). Her first appearance is marked by Calvin's frantic attempts to prove to himself that he has finally gone insane. The broad comedy of the sequence settles into the continuation of their relationship from the page to the real world. Harry comes to believe the whole story when Calvin changes the manuscript to say that the Ruby of the book speaks French, at which point Ruby herself begins to do so. It's a powerful tool, Harry points out, though he has sex on his mind.

The film treats the entire conceit at first with the appropriate denial and shock such a situation would provoke and then as a matter-of-fact reality (One moment raises that Ruby has her own apartment, which raises far too many questions; directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris wisely cut to Calvin's baffled reaction, which seems to ask all those questions in an instant). Calvin decides Ruby is perfect just as she is and locks the manuscript in a drawer.

The kinder motive for this action would be to prevent Ruby from having a painful existential crisis at the knowledge of her existence, but we know Calvin better than that. There is no way he give up this opportunity at happiness and companionship over the truth. This is a form of control unto itself; in denying the knowledge of her existence to Ruby, Calvin is essentially eliminating the possibility of her choosing what to do with the life he thrust upon her. He is so frightened of losing her that there is only one way for things to turn out; the day-to-day slog of two people trapped together in a state of codependency helps.

Dano is sympathetic in a role that could be treacherous. He does not downplay the darker nature of Calvin's motivations but does give us an incentive to understand them. Kazan has the tricky task of developing Ruby from an ideal to the eventual subtle rebellion she stages as a result of simply being a human being for the first time. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas have brief roles as Calvin's hippie mother and step-father, whose free-spirited lifestyle irks Calvin into showing his true colors (Bonus for Freudians: Calvin creates a perfect woman that reminds him of his mother).

Ruby Sparks is not bogged down by extraneous discussions and debates of its central gimmick. The film simply, compassionately, and thoughtfully observes how a fairly typical but destructive relationship—compounded by a metaphysical burden—progresses. The crisis does not lie in the fantasy but in the players.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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