Archive Review – “Ruby Sparks” (Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)

Review first published 13/10/12

Ruby Sparks

Calvin is an author who has had a major problem with his career since he wrote his one and only novel at nineteen years old… he’s an author who has had writer’s block for ten years.  Add to that a romantic life that has flatlined and no wonder he’s having therapy.  But when his therapist sets him a writing assignment, he writes about the girl from his dreams, who he names “Ruby Sparks”.

But what happens when the girl from your dreams appears in the real world and what happens when that girl starts to develop a wish for her own independence?

I saw the trailer for this film a couple of months ago and I instantly decided that I had to see it.  Firstly, because it’s a romantic fantasy film, for want of a genre, and secondly it’s about books and writing.

The screenplay written by Zoe Kazan, who also stars in the role of Ruby, delivers a script that has comedy, romance, pathos and a good dollop of food for thought.  The first half of the film is very much a comedy as you see Calvin try to cling to the success of his only publication whilst being prompted by his brother, Harry, portrayed by Chris Messina (“Julie and Julia”) and his therapist, portrayed by Elliot Gould, to break out of his solitary existence and meet people.  This romantic comedy aspect continues into Ruby’s on page creation as the quirky, screwed up girl from Dayton, Ohio, and her eventual materialisation into the real world as a self aware person, albeit a person who’s awareness is limited to what her creator has written for her and which can be changed in the space of keystrokes on a typewriter.

The question of Ruby’s self awareness is delved into later in the film as she starts to feel trapped in the isolation that Calvin has imposed upon her by virtue of their relationship and his need for human contact which stretches beyond his boundaries before he “met” Ruby.  What starts as putting his own emotional needs first by having Ruby being unable to live without him and then his reversal by making her joyously happy gradually slips into a relationship that is one of control from Calvin’s point of view bordering on a “God Complex” in a scene that is heartbreaking to watch.

Paul Dano (“Cowboys  & Aliens”, “Looper”) delivers a performance that is comedic, charming and heartrending in equal measure (and with these emotions overlapping on lots of occasions throughout the film) in the role of Calvin.  Calvin starts as a character that you can sympathise with due to his lack of literary output and romance who eventually becomes a living person once he dreams up and writes about Ruby and then pursues his relationship with her.  However, once his controlling tendencies start kicking in later in the film, Dano manages a fine balancing act of initially making this aspect of the role comedic such as in the scene where he makes Ruby speak fluent French at his brother’s behest and then becoming a character who is in parts unlikeable whilst managing to maintain a layer of sympathy later in the film once Calvin’s behaviour descends to being a controlling boyfriend.

Zoe Kazan is very much the star of this film in the role of Ruby as the character is initially written as what Calvin believes is his ideal girlfriend (something that gets touched upon later in the film in conversation) – a mixed up girl who loves Calvin unquestioningly.  The interesting change in the dynamic comes once Ruby starts expressing needs of her own for her independence from her creator which leads to Kazan portraying Ruby as a person who can’t function with her partner and then deleriously happy following Calvin’s intervention through the power of his typewriter, which has some gentle comedy moments within it, and then to a heartbreaking crescendo in the final act once Calvin restores her independence and later explains her true nature in what could be seen as a very spiteful act on his part.

Dano and Kazan are supported by a cast which adds believable emotional dynamics for both characters.

Chris Messina in the role of Harry is the confident brother to Calvin’s socially awkward sibling who has a story path of being supportive brother, disbelieving bystander once Calvin shares his secret, and then somebody who sees Ruby as somebody who can be changed at a whim.

Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas provide both comedy, warmth and a sense of dysfunctional family in the roles of Gertrude, Calvin’s mother, and Mort, her partner.

The two key cameo performances are provided by the aforementioned Gould as Dr Rosenthal, the man who instigates Ruby’s creation as Calvin’s therapist, and Steve Coogan (“24 Hour Party People”, “The Other Guys” and “Around The World In Eighty Days”) in the role of Langdon Tharp, Calvin’s former mentor and the man who is the catalyst that really exposes the cracks in Calvin and Ruby’s relationship.

The direction by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris plays on the romantic, bordering on magical and “modern day fairytale”, aspect of the script right from the start of the film when Ruby is introduced in Calvin’s dreams as figure of beauty shrouded in sunlight.  They use the brightness of the location for the story to carry this happy atmosphere through as you are buoyed into falling for Calvin and Ruby as a couple, only to have this atmosphere pulled from under you later in the film.

The soundtrack by Nick Urata, alongside contemporary tracks, also adds weight to the various aspects of this film as an additional background “character”.

“Ruby Sparks” is a not only a film that is about the ups and downs of a relationship, albeit magnified by the fact that Ruby has been created from Calvin’s fertile imagination, but is a clever film which manipulates the audience into feeling all the colours of a relationship in itself – happiness, sadness, insecurity, despondency and hope.  A great romantic film that can be watched by male and female audience members.

Rating: 4/5

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