Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, directors
Zoe Kazan, script
Starring: Paul Dano (Calvin Weir-Fields), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Steve Coogan (Langdon Tharp), Annette Bening (Gertrude), Antonio Banderas (Mort), Elliott Gould (Dr. Rosenthal), Chris Messina (Harry), Alia Shawkat (Mabel), Deborah Ann Woll (Lila)
Directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ follow up to their huge hit Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks is bound to generate media attention. In a summer that has seen very few blockbuster hits—really just The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers and The Amazing Spiderman–and precious few Indie successes—Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and maybe Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love and Beasts of the Southern Wild—there’s a lot of interest in seeing whether Ruby Sparks can make a box office breakthrough. It’s helpful that the film’s romantic leads Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan are in a real-life relationship and that they are quirky, likeable and attractive. But will the movie sell? The reviews will definitely make a difference.
Romantic comedy; fantasy; literary; wish fulfillment fairy tales
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is the new J.D. Salinger: his first book caught the attention of his generation, becoming as loved and respected as Catcher in the Rye. Ten years later, at the age of 29, he’s suffering from writer’s block. Filled with fear of creating a bad second novel, Calvin is depressed, seeking consolation from his middlebrow brother Harry and psychiatrist, Dr. Rosenthal.
Just when things seem to be at their worst, Calvin begins to have dreams about meeting a sweet, lovely girl in a park. Inspired, he begins to write about her. Soon, Ruby Sparks, his name for her, has helped him to conquer his writer’s block; in fact, Calvin has fallen in love with her.
Then, one day, he comes downstairs and Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) is there, making him pancakes. Naturally, Calvin thinks he’s lost his mind but when Ruby insists on going outdoors with him, he discovers, in a nicely judged comic scene, that everyone else can see her, too.
What do you do with a dream girl? Calvin stops writing again; not only is he happy but he can’t continue the book without changing Ruby. Reluctantly, he begins to introduce Ruby to his family; first to his brother and sister-in-law and then to his mother (Annette Bening, in a funny take as a hippie) and her rather dozy husband (Antonio Banderas, miscast but amusing).
Paradise can never work for a neurotic genius like Calvin. Soon, he’s trying to manage Ruby’s every thought and action—and the scary thing is, he can do it. All he has to do is write a page and he can make her speak French or turn her into a sniveling wretch, who absolutely adores him.
The trouble is: Calvin is too good a writer. When left to her own devices, the Ruby he conceived before she jumped from page to life, is a fully drawn character. That Ruby has problems with Calvin’s inability to connect emotionally with family and friends—and with her. He is, to use contemporary parlance, a “control freak.”
And Calvin soon realizes that rewriting Ruby to suit his fantasies is selling both of them short. Should he let her go? And if given her freedom, will she ever come back?
Paul Dano’s wan look and ineffectual style seems to be attractive to a younger audience—especially women. I don’t get it. He’s reasonably good in this role. And that’s also been true for his performances in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff and Being Flynn. But as a romantic lead, I find him bloodless. Obviously, others disagree including his partner in this film (and in life), Zoe Kazan.
Ms. Kazan plays Ruby Sparks and, of course, wrote the script. She does have style—admittedly in the Zoe Deschanel quirky vein—and presence. She was particularly impressive as Jason Schwartzman’s girlfriend eager to create a ménage a trois in the HBO TV series Bored to Death. She approached each scene in the show, as absurd as it might be, with gravitas—which worked perfectly with the scenario.
Here, in a part she wrote for herself, she is—unsurprisingly—terrific as a dream girl who finds herself in a nightmarish situation over which she has no control. Ms. Kazan is charming and effervescent at first—but is able to slowly bring us into the dilemma of a character who is supposed to be fictional but begins to feel all too real as the story progresses.
As in Little Miss Sunshine, directors Dayton and Faris use a cool, unencumbered style, which effectively plays off the unique plot and dialogue in Ruby Sparks. It’s a smart strategy. Instead of creating more frenzy, the directors underplay the bizarre nature of their scripts and characters.
Little Miss Sunshine featured great acting from Alan Arkin, Steve Carrell and the very young Abigail Breslin. Here, Elliott Gould (as Dr. Rosenthal), Steve Coogan and especially Deborah Ann Woll (as Calvin’s old girlfriend) are excellent. That’s a tribute to good directing—and casting.
Despite my reservations over Paul Dano (yes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have been better), this is a funny, dark modern take on Pygmalion. Zoe Kazan makes this movie successful due to her fine performance and sophisticated script. Will this film be a hit? I doubt it; my feeling is that it’s too intellectual and won’t connect with the large Indie audience that’s looking to embrace a quirky summer film.