It’s a good thing not to know where a film is going - we need surprises, we need to be spun around a few times - and Ruby Sparks, which is about a writer and his muse, but then becomes more about the muse and her writer, is happily just such a film. What starts off as a sunny daydream, a shot of whimsy and mild-mannered magical realism, turns into something more serious, and seriously reflective. Satisfyingly so
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband and wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine, from a script by Zoe Kazan - who also stars - Ruby Sparks has many of the trappings of a typical romantic comedy. But then the trappings turn darker, as the nature of relationships gets looked into, poked, and prodded - what one partner brings in terms of expectations, trying to define the other without necessarily taking into account who that person might really be
Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young novelist who was once a boy wonder - he wrote a great work when he was still in his teens, and now it’s 10 years later, and he still hasn’t delivered his second novel. It’s a real advantage of Ruby Sparks - and a credit to Dano’s performance and to the directors that from the first moments it’s easy to accept Dano in the role of a major literary talent. The audience must believe in the power of his mind
The life of a struggling genius is presented as lonely, lots of writing and tearing things up, and showing up at book signings where the groupies are just not as exciting as those at rock concerts. In an desperate attempt to solve his writers’ block, Calvin sees Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould), a therapist who suggests an exercise for him: Write a page about someone who would like his dog
To his surprise, Calvin takes to the assignment, writing about a woman he sees in his dreams. Something about her inspires him, and he writes more and more. The dreams are so vivid, the woman seems real, and the more he writes about her, the more real she becomes. Little things start showing up around Calvin’s home: a woman’s razor, a bra, panties
Then one morning as he’s dashing out the door, there is Ruby, offering to take the dog for a walk. She’s played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay. Calvin understandably thinks he’s gone crazy, but it’s soon apparent that other people can see Ruby, too, including Calvin’s doubting brother, Harry (Chris Messina). Calvin proves to Harry just how real the situation has become by doing a little show-off fine-tuning of Ruby — he makes her speak only French
Harry, standing in for the creators of every male-driven romantic comedy, sees the sexual potential in such a miracle. But Calvin is lonely to the core. He wants more. Ruby offers him companionship, and love. But he can’t leave well enough alone. Words have consequences, as we know, and for Calvin that’s literally true
A visit to his hippie mother (Annette Bening) and her lover (Antonio Banderas) further unsettles Calvin. They like Ruby, and she likes them. Ruby is showing signs of becoming her own person, no longer Calvin’s. Of course, he can change all that by heading back to the typewriter
How much should he control Ruby, who is, after all, his creation but who now exists not only in his life but in that of others?
Dayton and Faris aren’t afraid to take the story to darker places. And Dano is not afraid to follow: His performance is raw and affecting. Sometimes you feel sorry for him — he’s pathetic. Other times, you want to smack him upside the head
Inspired by the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, by the spirit (and style) of the French New Wave, and maybe some kooky vintage Hollywood fantasies (Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid? I Married a Witch?), the movie pulls off a deft balancing act. On one level, it’s a larky love story. On another, it’s the story of a guy so steeped in his own angst that it’s impossible to let anyone into his world. And it’s the story of a girl who gets buffeted - like a passenger on a plane that has hit turbulence - by his inability to understand who she is, and what she wants
With a performance that is wide-ranging by necessity, Kazan makes Ruby immensely likable (as well as clingy, manic, sad, happy and whatever else Calvin wants her to be)
Creation is a difficult business. Calvin has known this for the decade he’s spent trying to follow up his success. But until Ruby springs to life, he never knew how truly difficult it could be. Ruby Sparks charts that progression, making it so much more satisfying than the cut-rate romantic comedy that it could have been
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