Ruby Sparks (United States, 2012)

July 24, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ruby Sparks Poster

After watching Ruby Sparks, I asked myself a question: Did I enjoy it as much as I did because it brings such a breezy perspective to a tired genre or because it offers a unique point-of-view of creativity and the writing process? I'm not sure Ruby Sparks is going appeal to those who demand an adherence to formula from their romantic comedies. Not only does the movie play with a lot of intriguing quasi-philosophical issues but it is uncompromising in its trajectory. The first half is light and airy, deliriously romantic, and filled with longing and fulfillment. Then begins the slow descent into darkness. Ruby Sparks goes places where few romantic comedies dare to tread. One scene in particular is so bleak as to be almost physically painful. It's a powerful sequence - one that is not easily dismissed and is almost never found in productions marketed in this genre.

The hook will be sufficient to attract a certain type of viewer: those who enjoy romances but are tired of stories that never vary from the accepted formula. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a twentysomething author who made a big splash with his first novel, released more than a half-decade ago, but who has been stymied by a pervasive case of writer's block since then. He's asocial, preferring to hibernate in his apartment with his dog, seeing only his brother (Chris Messina) and his sister-in-law. Once in a while he emerges for a session with his therapist (Elliot Gould) or to participate in a live, on-stage Q&A program. He has minimal contact with his mother (Annette Bening) or her live-in lover (Antonio Banderas). He rarely dates, claiming that he finds it distasteful that women like sleeping with him because they read his book as a teenager. But he craves female companionship, although he wants a perfect woman, not a real one.

That's when the magic happens. In the context of Zoe Kazan's screenplay, it's something to be accepted, not explained. It won't survive overanalysis any more than space ships going Warp 5 will. Ruby Sparks (Kazan), a character in Calvin's latest attempt at a novel, comes to life. One morning, she manifests out of nothing and makes herself at home in his apartment. He thinks he's hallucinating and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown when he realizes other people can see her too. She's really there. What's more, he can alter her behavior and mood simply by sitting in front of his typewriter and writing a sentence. He types that she's fluent in French, and suddenly everything she says is subtitled. It goes without saying that Calvin and Ruby fall madly in love, but what then? As her creator, what are his responsibilities? And does he have the right to continue to twist her personality to satisfy his needs once it becomes clear that she is a unique individual?

There are echoes of Frankenstein in Ruby Sparks, as improbable as that might sound. Also questions that science fiction stories about artificial intelligence love to toy with. Those looking for something more relatable could see this movie as an allegory about the responsibility of a parent for a child. Fathers and mothers help to shape the personality of their offspring; at what point do they let go? When does nurturing become smothering? Of course, for those who don't want to think much, Ruby Sparks can be seen as an unconventional love story, although there's one stark scene that will bring up short those who are in the theater looking for unchallenging fluff.

Like Will Ferrell's most underrated starring vehicle, Stranger than Fiction, Ruby Sparks explores the creative process. It's a given that authors form relationships with their characters. J.K. Rowling admitted being depressed for days and crying after killing off a favorite character in the Harry Potter series. Ruby Sparks makes this concrete. It's like modern-day mythology: the gods sleeping with their creations. Parts of this movie play out like windows into an author's mind, although the "writer's block" feels like an overused conceit.

Paul Dano is not an ideal romantic comedy leading man candidate, but his low-key style is effective in an offbeat story like this, much as was the case in the equally quirky (but not nearly as good) Gigantic. Dano plays Calvin a little like a young Woody Allen - a mass of neuroses and tics. He also handles the scene exceptionally well, refusing to allow Calvin to be presented in a black-or-white manner. Zoe Kazan, who previously appeared with Dano in Meek's Cutoff, has spent the majority of her career in indie productions. This is her writing debut and it's clear she understands her character inside-out. Ruby may be a construct, but there are times when she displays more life and passion than her creator. The supporting cast is littered with well-known names - Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould - none of whom feel the need to steal scenes or upstage the less-known leads.

The directors are the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who have been absent from the movie scene for the six years following Little Miss Sunshine. Their deft touch when it comes to successfully shifting tones is in evidence. Parts of Ruby Sparks are glowing and gentle. Others are harsh. Still others are wrenching. The transitions are expertly handled, never seeming jarring or inappropriate. If the movie feels like two shorter pieces grafted at the middle, that's an intentional decision. The filmmakers give us something approaching a traditional romantic comedy before deconstructing it.

Fox Searchlight would like Ruby Sparks to tap into the audience that was enamored with (500) Days of Summer, but about the only things the movies have in common is that they're indie romances distributed by the same company. Ruby Sparks is a more daring and less conventional film and, although both movies offers a ray of sunshine at the end, the storm clouds in this one are more threatening than in Mark Webb's comparatively frothier exploration of love. Still, it's probably fair to use (500) Days of Summer as a barometer of appreciation for Ruby Sparks, and both have the distinction of being pleasant interruptions to the typical noisy cacophony of disappointing summer releases.

Ruby Sparks (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2012-07-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1