US (2012) Dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Prodigious writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling to follow up the success of his first novel which he achieved in his teens. At the suggestion of his therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) Calvin writes about a red haired girl calling herself Ruby Sparks who he saw in a vivid dream. When Calvin gets up the next morning, he is shocked to find Ruby (Zoe Kazan) making breakfast in the kitchen, in the flesh.
This film comes with something of a pedigree to it: husband and wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris gave us the wonderful Indy hit Little Miss Sunshine while star, producer and writer Zoe Kazan is the daughter of legendary director Elia Kazan (On The Waterfront). Expectations thus are pretty high but thankfully this film scores high enough in the right places to be considered a satisfying romp. The premise may not be a new one but the perspective certainly is. In the past whenever an artist has created a muse or plaything which comes to life it is always about the male’s needs; here Kazan puts the spotlight on the female’s role in this arrangement, asking the question “What is like being the plaything?” and not “What is it like having a plaything?” – ironically with her current real life beau Paul Dano as her target.
Calvin is a drip. There is no escaping that. No love life, no friends only his dog Scotty and his married brother Harry (Chris Messina) for close company, with the external lifeline of Sr. Rosenthal. When Ruby enters his dreams, Calvin is inspired again and rattles off reams of romanticised prose about this perfect specimen of womanhood, only to have that dream come true. It naturally takes a while for Calvin to adapt to having this effervescent presence in his life, at first dismissing Ruby as a hallucination until she catches him talking with another woman who can also see Ruby. Confusion over with, the pair set off on a whirlwind romance that suits both until Ruby begins to wander a little from their happy path. Harry suggests that if Ruby is Calvin’s creation then he should be able to control her. So Calvin writes that Ruby can speak French; suddenly she parlez Français with native fluency, providing a dangerous turning point in the relationship.
Any suggestion that this is another frivolous rom-com is put paid to with this cynical turn of events, demonstrating the intelligence of the script and Kazan’s messages. The willingly servile / fantasy woman has been done to death from Pygmalion to I Dream Of Jeannie to The Stepford Wives to Weird Science but Kazan turns it on its head with a more focused retort on the whims of the controlling male. Calvin is not so arrogant that he would have Ruby become such a vapid slave to his desires and when things are going good, he puts his battered typewriter away and goes with the flow. But when Ruby begins to exhibit a will of her own and allows the ennui of their relationship to effect her attitude, Calvin gets writing again turning Ruby into his emotional plaything rather than change what it is that was putting her off. Men eh?
The conceit here is that Calvin may have created Ruby in his mind but she is very real and that there are always the terms and conditions which he, like most of us, failed to read. Kazan’s challenging one person becoming an idealised version according to the wants and needs of another comes from making Ruby as a well-crafted and plausible character. She doesn’t fly, isn’t impervious to pain and can’t magic things out of thin air – she IS real. Yet she isn’t. In keeping the characters grounded, resisting the temptation of making Calvin a hero for creating his perfect woman is a smart move, while his descent into jealousy and controlling ways born out of his own needs subtly shifts his role from protagonist to antagonist.
Whatever deep and pertinent themes Kazan is trying to convey here, this is by no means a po-faced arthouse tale which relies on symbolism and allegory to get its point across. The mood is generally light and there is plenty of humour in the first half upon Ruby’s arrival, especially in a sequence of scenes complimented by the appearance of canine co-star Oscar as Scotty the dog. Dano’s limp Calvin is a little irritating, recalling James Spader in Mannequin but not so odious, but has that everyman look to pull off the requisite neediness his character exudes. Later on there is a tribute of sorts to Meet the Fokkers where Annette Bening as Calvin’s mother and Antonio Banderas as her lover ham it up as a pair of artistic hippies living in a paradise getaway, who are naturally smitten with Ruby. The conduit to the climax of the film comes in the form of a miscast Steve Coogan as a rival author and lothario who fails to convince in the role. But this is Kazan’s film (both literally and figuratively) who lights up the screen with her charming and bubbly personality and energy while switching between moods and self-imposed demands the script calls for making Ruby not just an endearing character but a statement to filmmakers that the next breakout star is here.
It would be sheer folly to compare this to Little Miss Sunshine by association of the directors but Ruby Sparks has plenty of charm, heart and intelligence of its own to easily override this and is very much worthy of your attention and plaudits it garners on its own merits.