Review: Ruby Sparks

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The marketing material for Ruby Sparks suggests a light-hearted romp of a romantic comedy. However, the script, by star Zoe Kazan, is far more interesting than that, and at times is provocatively serious. As someone who calls himself a writer, and who has created female characters, this film really got to me.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks touches on a theme that is old as the hills–the creator’s relationship with his creation. This goes back at least to the myth of Pygmalion, and pops in works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a pretty good Twilight Zone episode. The creator has power and responsibility over his creation, but just how much is morally correct?

A very good Paul Dano plays Calvin, a novelist who has writer’s block. He has one novel, written when he was in high school, that was a publishing sensation, but now he lives in a white-walled house in California and dotes on his dog, but struggles to write anything (we know he’s a bit off-kilter, too, because he uses a typewriter).

His psychiatrist (Elliot Gould) suggests writing about a person who likes his mangy dog. Dano ends up having a dream about his idealized woman. Inspired, he writes reams about her, and is naturally surprised when he finds that she has come to life, and is living in his house. She is the title character, and is played by Kazan.

When Dano realizes he’s not crazy, and other people can see her, he is overjoyed. After all, he has created her–she is girlfriend of his dreams. Everything he ever wanted in a girl is embodied in her. And just by typing a line, he can change her. But he decides she’s perfect as she is and puts his manuscript away.

But, as any writer knows, a character soon slips out of the control of the author and takes on a life of her own. When the two start drifting apart, Dano goes back to his typewriter and makes changes, and the movie takes on a very dark tone. He makes her too clingy, depressed when he lets go of her hand. So he makes her happy, and she giggles like an idiot. When she strips down to her underwear for a swim with his friend (Steve Coogan), he overreacts, and exercises his omnipotence in a scene that is frighteningly effective.

Kazan’s script is the star here. She obviously has heard of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a character that is usually typified by a quirky, pretty girl who comes along to ease the young, tortured hero’s pain, and whose role only exists in the film for that purpose. These women are usually created by lovelorn screenwriters, who have decided that if they can’t find this girl in real life, they’ll make her up. Kazan has turned that on its head, and quite angrily, I think, exposes that gimmick as misogynistic. Kazan wants us to know that female characters are people, too, and not objects, though that should be obvious.

While Ruby Sparks is an excellent depiction of writers and writing, it isn’t perfect. The extraneous stuff is crudely drawn and badly handled. A scene involving Dano’s mother and stepfather (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas), as stereotypical new-agers, is awkward and unnecessary. I liked Chris Messina as Dano’s brother–though Messina is a good-looking, successful man, I found the sibling relationship authentic–we don’t get much of an insight into his character.

But overall, I enjoyed Ruby Sparks a great deal. Kazan, by the way, is very good in this part, but let’s face it, she got it because she wrote the script (and is an executive producer). Otherwise, certainly, this part would have gone to Zooey Deschanel, the poster child for the Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

My grade for Ruby Sparks: B+

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

One response »

  1. A frustrating film: it almost was very good but just missed the mark.

    I think this was because the film had several options on what it could’ve been – a Twilight Zone type fantasy, an unusual romance, a social examination of power and control in relationships and (perhaps most intriguingly) a nightmarish horror story – but wasn’t really any of them.

    For example, (spoiler warning:), a scene late in the film where Calvin is typing instructions forcing Ruby to do a series of humiliating deeds is quite terrifying in a way as we see Calvin for the first time as quite a monstrous character. In that context, the rather predictable happy ending that follows seems a bit of a cop-out.

    As for the cast, it was almost too strong for its own good. Bening is always worth watching but she’s a bit wasted. Coogan even moreso in a real nothing role.

    While watching it I was reminded specifically of a Twilight Zone episode starring Keenan Wynn which had basically the same concept. And the thing is, that 25 minute episode did as much with the concept (and had more fun) than this film did.

    An interesting film but not a successful one.

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