I identified with this film more than is probably healthy – and I think that points to a certain reverberating honestly to ‘Ruby Sparks’. It tackles the realities of relationships – the irony being, the one that sits at the heart of the film is entirely fictitious and constructed. Ruby Sparks is a parable of sorts, preaching that love isn’t about ideals – it’s not something that can be forced, redesigned or otherwise manipulated—at least, not if you want it to last. Of course, it also undermines that message with an ending that rewards this kind of behaviour in turn.
Written by and co-starring the talented and striking Zoe Kazan (‘Me and Orson Welles’, ‘Revolutionary Road’) as the titular Ruby, playing opposite Paul Dano (‘There Will Be Blood’), the tale dips its toes in the fantastical meditations of love and loss raised in movies like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and early Woody Allen comedies – though never reaching those lofty heights of intimacy and sheer quality.
Told from the perspective of acclaimed young author Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano), Ruby Sparks is the product of the mind of an alienated creative who doesn’t know how to connect with women. Suffering from writer’s block and massive anxieties, at the behest of his therapist (a small but taut performance from the marvellous Elliott Gould), Calvin ends up therapeutically crafting a new tale about his ideal partner. This is all well and fine until that story becomes an obsession—and, be it through the power of love, the magic of language or simply convenient writing, Ruby herself simply pops into being in Calvin’s life, memories, quirks and all.
It’s a great set-up; think 2006’s ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, but taken from the reverse. I’d love to report back that it’s as rounded and enjoyable as that, but Ruby has a few significant shortcomings. There are simply too many unnecessary characters and it pulls down the storytelling – which is already undermined by a fairly unlikeable main character in Dano’s Calvin. Also, intentional though it may be, there’s a level of pretension to the overall story that really suck out sorely.
While the support cast is strong, they’re very clearly stitched into the story to round out and lighten what would otherwise be a dark (cynically un-Hollywood) screenplay. It needed to be darker. More darkness, I say. Brutalize us. Make me think. Leave your characters changed – not rewarded for their bad behaviour.
British comedian and presenter Steve Coogan pops up as an accomplished writer—though his sole contribution to the film is to create flimsy tension in the final act. He’s great – but it’s meaningless in the context of the film. Likewise, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas are likeable and entirely pointless as Calvin’s ‘alternative’ mother and her partner. These big-name players are clearly both feathers in the cap of the production and a greater draw for audiences (and producers), since the film’s principle cast is comprised of lower-key performers – talented though they are.
Ruby Sparks herself, the lovely Zoe Kazan, gets to flex her acting range here; this is a great vehicle for her—a reminder that the ‘quirky and nerdy’ subset of actors (think Zooey Deschanel) need more than a bubbly personality to sell their characters as authentic. Watching her enact Calvin’s whims later in the film is startling.
Paul Dano, though unquestionably talented, is under the thumb of a script that paints him as flippant and unlikeable – despite the audience’s need to connect with him. It’s a lead balloon tied to Ruby Sparks’ waist that draws the film down. Oddly though, while you’ll be waiting for the darker plot turns to come (as it rightly needs, given the subject matter), it really only eventuates late in the story – and the ending is sadly predictable and – I’m gonna take a stab a this – probably a studio-mandated rewrite.
There are some knowing nods to its own pretension, however: Calvin starts off writing on a typewriter (oh god) – and eventually this gives way to a MacBook. One character later comments on his work as “a little pretentious” – and it’s entirely likely Ruby Sparks is one big commentary on not just the necessary for organic, natural love, but also what a load of bullshit and wankery the entertainment and writing scene can be. I like that cheek. I just wish there was more bite in the rest of the film.
It’s unfortunate because, as I mentioned, I identified with much of Ruby Sparks’ relationship insights – and the sometimes gentle, sometimes brutal humour of Ruby’s invented existence. There’s strong storytelling at the core here, backed by worthwhile performances – and this is a good movie – though, not quite the original masterpiece of love and creativity it clearly strives to be.