It Begins With The Words, by David Bax
It’s said you should write what you know. In fact, those exact words are spoken in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ new film, Ruby Sparks. Sometimes, however, you might be too close to the things that define you to see them clearly. This film, for instance, happens to be remarkably insightful about a certain type of young man but was written by a woman: the film’s star, Zoe Kazan. Kazan displays a surprising competence given that this is her only credit as a writer. She also displays an unfortunate if respectable willingness to make her movie irritating for long stretches of time.
Paul Dano plays the film’s real protagonist, Calvin, a 29-year-old writer who is a former wunderkind. He published a lauded and enduring novel ten years previous and has spent most of the ensuing time in a sparsely decorated house, hanging out occasionally with his brother, going to therapy and, recently, acquiring a dog. He is terribly lonely, generally blocked as a writer and almost completely unable to talk to other people. When his therapist (Elliott Gould) suggests he start by writing a story in which he meets a person, he invents for himself the perfect young woman. Her name is Ruby Sparks and she’s beautiful, interesting, fun and completely in love with Calvin. Then, one day, she’s real and standing in his kitchen.
At this point, Ruby Sparks is still pretty hate-worthy. Calvin’s condo is too clean, angular and minimalist to even exist outside of the movies. Almost immediately at the film’s beginning, we see him slide a piece of paper into a typewriter and then answer the home phone sitting atop his desk. Are these affected anachronisms meant to be cute? The presence of such analog artifacts is so forced and unlikely, Calvin’s telephone may as well be hamburger-shaped like Juno’s.
Annoyances only continue from there. When Calvin describes Ruby, he mentions such endearing traits as often forgetting to pay her bills on time and just generally not having her shit together. The epidemic of flightiness as an irresistible aspect of female movie love interests continues unabated. At this point, if it’s trite for me to reference Nathan Rabin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, shouldn’t it be even more trite for someone to actually write one?
As it turns out, those are precisely the thoughts I was meant to be having. Kazan pulls the rug out by slowly revealing that those grating clichés were being set up only to be picked apart. (For the typewriter and the telephone, however, there is no real apologia or excuse.) The longer Ruby exists, the more real she becomes. This is literally true in that she begins to have experiences Calvin didn’t write for her but there is a more important metaphorical truth to her development. In all relationships, there is the gradual fading of the charmed, early period. That time when each member is willing to pretend to be the person the other wants is eventually replaced by other interactions that are deeper while also being more mundane. We will always mourn the intoxication of those early weeks but the foundations being laid by the gentle revealing of each to the other are by far a net good.
Calvin, sadly, doesn’t see it that way. The pathology that has led him to the solitude in which we first found him is revealed when he is largely unable to accept the real Ruby in place of his idea of her. This notion of men wanting to possess the women they love reminded me of David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls. On the one hand, that may not be a comparison Ruby Sparks wants given that Green’s film is better but it’s still good company.
Dayton and Faris are relatively new to feature filmmaking, having a long and respected career as music video makers. They directed the clip for “1979” by The Smashing Pumpkins, which puts them in the category of all time greats. But their only other film, Little Miss Sunshine, was unable to justify the transition into increased running time and was little more than a pageant of studied apathy. Here, though, they have Kazan’s script to work with, which improves things considerably. Ruby Sparks is a tightly told and sharply edited story, though they are a tad fixated on distractingly photogenic locations, such as the Egyptian theater on Hollywood Boulevard and a ridiculous house that may have once belonged to a bunch of cookie-baking elves.
That earthy abode belongs to Calvin’s mother and stepfather, which brings us to the impressive cast. Those two are played, respectively, by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. In addition to them, Dano, Kazan and Gould, the film features Steve Coogan, Chris Messina, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat and, knocking it out of the park in one scene, True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll.
Woll’s scene comes minutes prior to – and partially lays the groundwork for – the film’s emotional climax, in which what had previously been a sly tale explodes into operatic grotesqueness. As if the emotional content of the celluloid were itself overexposed, everything is cranked up and it simply does not work. Though Dano and Kazan give it their best (and Kazan can at least be congratulated on her athleticism), it’s a repellent sequence, a miscalculation on every level. Afterward, we return to the movie we’d been watching all along and those moments seem like a feverish dream. Sadly, however, they really happened.
It’s almost a cliche now that women are fed false ideas of love by watching romantic comedies. Boys like Calvin, though, are similarly plagued. Having spent their formative years in near isolation, they have singlehandedly created a schematic of the world for themselves based on movies, novels, records and comic books, the authors of which likely had similar childhoods. Even those who might consider themselves romantics – Calvin almost certainly would – are going to find it difficult to reconcile their ideals with the reality of another whole person. Ruby Sparks, though it often tries the viewer’s patience (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), examines the dramatic fallout of this clash in an impressive way.