(This review was originally published on July 25, 2012 at Reel Film News)
I was unaware before seeing “Ruby Sparks” that co-stars Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan are a real-life item. That explains a lot though; underneath some genuinely fine acting exists an undeniable chemistry between the two.
I’m not talking about the traits of a conventional courtship, whatever your definition of that might be, that translate into an obvious onscreen attraction. The believability here happens in their most awkward, conflicted and insecure moments. That’s what also makes the film so funny; given the circumstances of its plot – a woman who literally comes to life from a man’s imagination – it is vastly more relatable than the majority of sappy mainstream ‘dramedy’ these days. The screenplay, written smartly by Kazan and put into motion by co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the team behind “Little Miss Sunshine”), radiates an interesting, often subtle range of emotions that finds its footing somewhere between “Weird Science” and “The Taming of the Shrew”. Because the framework of the story is as basic as most romantically driven knee-slappers, Kazan’s characters, particularly her own role as the eponymous Ruby, are given ample room to shine.
The story follows Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano, who most recently played the title role in “Being Flynn”), a young novelist living in L.A. whose highly anticipated follow-up to his first bestseller has been stalled by a crippling case of writer’s block. He’s become a bit of a recluse, still nursing himself back to mental health after the end of a five-year relationship while also dealing with an anxious publisher and various other ego-diminishing hurdles. Dano plays Calvin with just the right amount of vulnerability; damaged but not hopeless, funny but not a joke. He has an older brother named Harry (Chris Messina, “The Giant Mechanical Man”), a successful sports agent with a beautiful wife and child who constantly urges Calvin to get back out on the ‘dating scene’, an endeavor that is well-intentioned but conveyed with an almost Stifler-esque tenacity. There’s a depth to Harry, and in between comments like, “Don’t you ever want to have sex again?” and, “My God, you don’t even get laid in your own dreams?” shows signs of empathy. Calvin’s therapist (Elliott Gould) gives him ‘assignments’ to get him writing and socializing again, but to no avail; his only non blood-related friend seems to be his dog Scotty.
Enter Zoe Kazan (whom you may recognize from the HBO series “Bored to Death”) as Calvin’s muse/love interest. After an epiphanic dream in which Calvin meets this whimsical young redhead named Ruby Sparks, he finds himself vigorously writing about her. The more he writes, the more he develops feelings for her, despite his awareness that she is merely a figment of his imagination. One morning he awakens to find her in his loft; she believes that she is his live-in girlfriend, and she’s exactly as described in his book.
After accepting the miraculous reality of his creation, Calvin finds himself in the perfect situation, not to mention hopelessly in love. But as Ruby becomes increasingly independent, it turns out that he may not be the ideal man for her. When he realizes that he is still able to ‘write’ Ruby, the film poses some moral questions; specifically, what would you do if you could literally change a person?
Smartly dodging the opportunity to become a commercially-minded rom-com in the first half and thankfully only scratching the surface of Shakespearean tragedy in the second, “Ruby Sparks” tempers its ethereal qualities (effectively visualized by cinematographer Matthew Libatique) with the self-awareness of its characters, only faltering slightly near the end as its comic tone tapers off. Particularly for a creative oddity that might be considered a mish-mash of romantic/fantasy/comedy fare, every character has a realistic, relatable and redeeming quality (with the exception of Steve Coogan’s portrayal of a lecherous weasel named Langdon Tharp). The supporting mini-ensemble is terrific, too. In addition to Gould are Annette Bening as Calvin’s preppy-turned-hippy mother and Antonio Banderas as her carefree, furniture-building boyfriend Mort.
In its quirky but not-too-artsy style, there’s a distinct sweetness that pervades this film. But despite its levity, something remains inherently serious about “Ruby Sparks”, like an unstable science fair project or an unexplained tremor. In retrospect, the theme could just as easily have lent itself to the script of a horror movie; I suppose there’s always that fine line when it comes to human nature. In this case, we get the good side.
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Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Chris Messina, Elliott Gould, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Jonathan Dayton, Matthew Libatique, Movie Review, Paul Dano, Ruby Sparks, Steve Coogan, Valerie Faris, Zoe Kazan