From directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directors of Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Ruby Sparks is the story of Calvin, a struggling novelist who wills the perfect girlfriend into existence through his writing. Ruby Sparks is the first screenplay for Zoe Kazan, who also plays the title character.
I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did. Paul Dano, also from Little Miss Sunshine, is one of the more interesting actors going around these days with equal talent for comedy and drama. His character is an intriguing one – a novelist struggling to write after a producing a massive literary best-seller at a very young age, who is also struggling with even the very idea of having a relationship after his last girlfriend. After a vivid dream of his “perfect” girl, Calvin starts writing about her, a fictional character, and suddenly finds his writing has created a real life woman, Ruby Sparks. I can’t help but be reminded of the excellent Stranger Than Fiction (2006), in which a man (Will Ferrel) one day discovers he is a character in a novel in progress.
For most of the film, the plot is fairly predictable. Calvin struggles with this bizarre reality, winds up falling in love with his flesh and blood character and as their relationship starts to enter the tricky phases that all relationships do, he starts to experiment with exactly how much control over her he has. The answer is absolute and after a somewhat unsettling scene, Ruby herself learns of her own reality as Calvin’s puppet. Predictability isn’t a really problem but it is a disappointment for a film that sets itself up with such a potentially interesting story and ultimately falls short of delivering.
A downfall of Ruby Sparks is in these first two thirds where Calvin is figuring out how much he can control Ruby, and the ethics of that control. In this part of the film, there is too little character development. And it’s not that the film lacks character development at all, it just finds its strengths in the final third as we realise exactly why Calvin is having so much trouble with his writing and his love life and exactly how far his ego and contradictory self-loathing extends. Had that been brought forward earlier and developed alongside his new and highly unconventional relationship with Ruby, the film would have been a lot stronger. Had Ruby Sparks leaned more for the drama of the characters and less for the romance, it might have been exceptional.
An interesting (or perhaps annoying) thing about this film is that it’s uncertain whether or not the clichéd type of Ruby Sparks is intended or a downfall of the movie itself. Ruby is the typical quirky girl full of sunshine and optimistic and creative energy, something we could easily expect Zooey Deschanel to play. On one side, this is an increasingly familiar character in many offbeat romantic comedies, but on the other side of the argument, if a sad and lonely offbeat guy is going to imagine a perfect girl into existence, then she’s more than likely going to be an amalgam of his perfect ideas and as such a two dimensional character. Which Ruby Sparks definitely is. However, if Calvin is the genius writer he is made out to be, one would assume he could have more originality and depth in coming up with a female love interest. Ultimately then, I’ll see this flat characterisation as a fault of the film. Kazan is fine in the role, though it’s not a character I couldn’t imagine being played by a handful of other actresses.
There’s no real room in Ruby Sparks for Dano to show off what he can really do in a good role. Calvin himself is also a bit of a clichéd writer type – complete with writing montages of furious typing, manic reading and the heart-of-the-poet soul searching that a lot of films see as stock standard for any writer. The supporting cast is quite strong with Chris Messina as Calvin’s brother and Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s eccentric mother and step-father. Steve Coogan makes a rewarding appearance as Calvin’s fellow author and literary critic, Langdon Tharp.
Don’t go to Ruby Sparks expecting laugh out loud hilarity or particularly inspired romance or drama. There’s mild amusement and a marginally interesting plot with a decent cast, but nothing to really blow you away in the way something like Stranger Than Fiction or even Little Miss Sunshine did.