Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Bona Fide/Fox Searchlight
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa. Writer: Zoe Kazan. Camera: Matthew Libatique. Music: Nick Urata. Sets: Alexander Wei.
Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll.
Calvin (Dano) is a shy and retiring novelist who has produced only one book in his entire career, hugely successful and fondly remembered by a generation, thus ensuring he never needs to work again. Then one day his latest creation, a character called Ruby (Kazan), suddenly comes to life as his real-life girlfriend. Much to his delight, he finds that by altering her mood and feelings on paper causes corresponding changes in the real girl. But his joy at manipulating her into always being the perfect woman is short-lived.
Fun and frequently funny comedy drama, from the same directors behind the charming Little Miss Sunshine, shows how far you can go with a little sparky imagination.
A lot, however, rests on the charm of the performances and Ruby Sparks is a film that hits the home run in every performance, with something unique to savour from each. Coogan’s rival writer is a lesser talent seething with almost unspoken jealousy for his younger counterpart, sleeping with Dano’s girlfriends out of spite. Messina is a delight as Dano’s hen-pecked brother who encourages him to change his girlfriend frequently, if for nothing more than he might get laid more often. And better. Gould’s patient shrink is presented as a perfect balancing act to Dano’s neuroticism. Bening (whose character, Gertrude, seems to echo Hamlet’s character for marrying another man after the death of the male lead’s father) and Banderas chill out as Dano’s free spirit folk whose garden is their house.
The leads are a very appealing double-act; Dano, with meek and passive aggressive voice and body language, seems like the most harrassed of writers block sufferers, a collection of twitches, squeaky outbursts and untrusting looks. His character is a sweet guy, but also repellant as he lives his life and relationships through ink and paper, the ultimate sexual controller of women. The only lasting relationship he has is with his typewriter and even that is a let down, helping him produce no more than one good book. That he squeezes comedy juice out of the role for everything it’s worth is all the more impressive.
Kazan has given herself what is the most interesting piece dramatically, with violent, sudden and exhausting mood changes, a literal bipolar character. She is hard to keep up with much to less to enjoy but she has our sympathies, being no more than a puppet on an ink ribbon.
Kazan’s script leads to some split thinking though. On the one hand, it is an energetic, thoughtful, clever piece with some unforgettable dramatic moments a writer should be proud of. The example that lingers after leaving the theatre is the crazy, mad love scene when Dano, frustrated that his constantly evolving work on paper is only making Ruby unbalanced and unpredictable in real life, bashes out a series of increasingly bizarre behaviours on his trusty typewriter for her to act out.
One of these actions highlights the problem, on the other side of the coin, with the writing. Ruby constantly refers to the writer as “genius”. This is how other people refer to him, almost as shorthand to move the conversation away from this difficult person and on to something easier to discuss. Star Kazan is the writer too and near the end of the film, another character she plays states that Dano’s new book is pretentious. This script could be seen as overly precious clever-dickness, as if the writer has descended into their own literary frenzy of self congratulation. None the less, she can still write some great scenes so let’s hope we get more from her.