Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ruby Sparks (***1/2)

Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Davis


Films about the creative process don't always work. There's a kind of self-referencing egomania that the audience can sense when we see something written about writing. But Ruby Sparks, the new film from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Davis, is filled with such wonderful charm and sweet humor that it is able to overcome that. A love story at its core, Ruby Sparks is a fantastic film about the pressure put on artful creation, and the kind of person that the creative mind can make.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a young novelist who's had writer's block for close to a decade. He had the misfortune of writing a universally beloved novel in his teens that is generally considered a masterpiece and gained Calvin the general monicker of "young genius". But the pressure of such a great piece of work has rendered Calvin utterly useless as a writer since and has also affected his social life. Outside of his brother Harry (Chris Messina) and his therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould), Calvin doesn't really have social interaction with anyone. Even getting a dog doesn't solve his loneliness.

When Dr. Rosenthal gives Calvin an assignment - to write about someone encountering his dog and enjoying its company - that he's able to come out of his rut. A woman, named Ruby, springs herself out of Calvin's mind and he's able to fill numerous pages just about her. He creates her entire biography and life, and she is the muse that builds his new novel. He begins to fear that he cannot stop writing because he doesn't want to stop spending time with his fictional character. She doesn't really exist, but he's beginning to fall in love with her.

But Calvin's fantasy takes an odd turn when Ruby (Zoe Kazan) shows up in his kitchen, apparently out of thin air. She's perfect, exactly as she's written. She's beautiful, a great cook, and adventurous, and best of all, she loves Calvin. He can't explain how she took the leap from the page to reality, but then again, who says everything needs to be explained? When Calvin explains to Harry about Ruby, he doesn't believe him, that is until Calvin writes that she can speak French, and suddenly she is fluent. Calvin promises not to write to change her again, to leave her perfect, only to learn that there is no such thing as the perfect woman, even if he creates her.

It's to the film's credit that it never really takes any serious effort to explain how Ruby manifests herself out of Calvin's mind. Instead, Ruby just eases into Calvin's life, friends and family. The film is not much interested in the metaphysical realities of its story, but instead of the people that inhabit it. Paul Dano's tortured Calvin is a certain kind of misogynist. Quiet, seemingly unassuming. He was granted the title of genius at a very young age, and has spent a good deal of time failing at living up to that potential. That he can create the perfect woman and still find a way to be dissatisfied and try to change her speaks to a pretty large vapidness in his personality.

I was not aware until the end of the film that the screenplay was written by the actress who plays Ruby, Zoe Kazan. It's a terrific debut as a screenwriter, and it shows in meticulous, sometimes harrowing detail that she knows all about how painful a process writing can be. Coming from the theater family tree of Elia Kazan (she's his granddaughter), one can imagine she's been around at least one person pounding away on a typewriter all of her life. But coming from her, this film seems less about the struggle of the writer and more about the struggle of the actress and the women in general. The film business is one that is still creatively dominated by men, and watching Calvin tell Ruby that he can make her do whatever he wants, leads me to believe that she's probably ran into a few directors in her life that felt the same way about their female actresses.

But enough about Ruby Sparks' metaphorical possibilities, the film shines because it is filled with performances that are about as oblivious to the film's impossible premise as Calvin is. If there is any justice in this world, Zoe Kazan would get as much notice for this film as Zooey Deschanael got for (500) Days of Summer. It's a star-making role, and one that she exemplifies so well that we love her just as much as Calvin does. As the film's protagonist, Dano gives Calvin just enough pitiful impishness that we are not awash by how much of a selfish human being he may actually be. The film is sprinkled with top-rate supporting performances as well including Messina as Harry and Steve Coogan as Calvin's charming but not-so-subtle mentor. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderes make startlingly great surprise turns as Calvin's mother and stepfather. There home is certainly something to behold.

Ruby Sparks has a concept that screenwriters all over the world kick themselves for not thinking of first. It's probably for the best. Without Kazan's wonderful insight, this probably would have just been a knock off of Weird Science. The character of Ruby is not treated as a Stepford wife, needlessly bowing to her man. She is a woman that was in fact created by man, but that doesn't mean that she has to always be what the man wants her to be. I find it hard to believe that a male screenwriter would have stumbled upon that logic.

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