2:19 pm Jul. 25, 2012
She first appears to him in a dream.
At 29, Calvin (Paul Dano) is a fading literary wunderkind still coasting on the reputation built by his debut novel, published a decade earlier. Rather than writing, he spends afternoons leaning dolefully on his sympathetic therapist (Elliott Gould) and, less successfully, his cut-the-shit brother Harry (Chris Messina), and evenings shrugging through speaking events and shaking off his agent (Aasif Mandvi). Alone with his waking and less-waking dreams, Calvin is visited by the soothing, sweet-faced figure of Ruby Sparks: an aggressively styled charmer packing the appropriate cultural references and obvious life-restoring properties, Ruby says all the right things.
Sound familiar? Actress Zoe Kazan’s wise, sharp-witted writing debut (Kazan also plays Ruby) begins with a risk: calling up the full complement of character traits, famously canonized by Nathin Rabin as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that have begun to look as fresh as an old dancing bear’s tutu. Before despair finds its way into your bloodstream, however, Kazan and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) set up a drip of the antidote, where a type we have come to know and dread is subjected to a surprising if not completely satisfying reckoning.
Calvin is presented as a young man with some learning to do, a celebrated author who has yet to recognize that he’s at a dead end as a writer because he’s at a dead end as a person. Among other things, he’s having problems with his own objectification, if being hunted down by coeds for sycophantic trophy sex can be called a problem. To unblock his chi and whatever else is seizing him up from the inside, Gould instructs his patient to sit down and write something shitty—let himself fail and start from there. Without entirely meaning to, that’s exactly what Calvin does.
Sparked by the Ruby dominating his dream life, Calvin seeks to harness and shape her, dusting off his typewriter to write her into a love story. He adds enough backstory to keep her plausible (she's from Ohio) but not too much to crowd her with specifics, or independent thought. Calvin becomes the literal narrator at this point, and we see his creation as he does: Ruby likes the author just as he is. Ruby’s first crushes were on Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. Ruby is, as Calvin writes, “complicated—that’s what I like about her. Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes.” When she calls herself a mess, the author warmly declaims his love of her mess.
Upon reading the manuscript, Harry warns his brother that he’s made the fatal error of creating a personality instead of a person, but Calvin is convinced he’s created a masterpiece. If that’s true, it becomes clear early on, it will be the first masterpiece fueled by a limping ego and emotional laziness, the two elements that combine to bring this cereal-munching sprite in magenta tights into being.
From the moment that she materializes in his kitchen, a sunny, suggestible ingenue to his Pygmalion, the stakes for Ruby Sparks take a steep upward jump. Dano, who has the smug mousiness of the modern young scribe down, suddenly has a wide range of emotions and responses to play with, and Kazan, aside from bringing her prototypical Oopsy Doll eyes and heavy bangs along, gamely embodies what is essentially a feverish cipher. Initially confined to Calvin’s bright, light-bleached L.A. condo, the odd couple generate an easy, silly energy (Dano and Kazan live together in real life).
When Calvin is satisfied, through a slapstick series of events, that Ruby is in fact real, it feels like a knowing touch, within the world of this deceptively knowing movie, that his realization triggers a frantic, retro-pop montage that presents the pair going bananas at a zombie film festival, then an arcade, and generally falling deep in quirky, adorable love. Beyond that interlude for indie cliché, Nick Urata’s enlivened orchestral score lends a dramatic scope and texture that helps suspend the film above the ranks of mere wispy romantic comedy.
With his manuscript locked conscientiously away, Calvin sees his life as suddenly, fortuitously complete. The couple’s trip to Big Sur to visit his mother (Annette Bening, who has played your mom and mine by now, luxuriating in the role of the boho, post-pixie sage) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) highlights the contours of that delusion from several angles. Ruby gets on with his mother like a house all a-sparkle, but this doesn’t work for Calvin, in part because his mother’s ready transformation from the uptight yuppie mom who raised him to the free-living Earth mama she is now has put her character in question. Who’s at the center of all those costumes and all that posturing?
This sequence breathes new life into a movie that has already established a nicely oxygenated rhythm, but it’s also where Ruby Sparks begins to lose its momentum and a little bit of its nerve. Calvin begins chiding Ruby for the exact things he once found endearing, and in response she asserts some agency—spending the odd night at her place, wherever that is, and taking classes and making friends outside of their sterile garret. The emancipation is brief: Ruby’s author asserts his privilege, revisiting his manuscript and making a series of extreme corrections; instead of fleshing her out he draws her thin outline in.
It’s the necessary endgame of this exercise, and yet it feels like some of the moral and psychological intricacies of creating a human crutch (and then editing it when it fails to prop you up correctly) are passed over to get to a stirring but less than fully imagined climax. The story concentrates on Calvin’s romantic weaknesses (unlike Will Ferrell’s character in the excellent Stranger Than Fiction, our sense of Ruby’s plight is remote), but there’s something missing from its examination of a central question: Why is this the received dream girl? What has made her the unconscious’ archetype of choice, for Calvin or anyone else? How much of Ruby came from Calvin and how much did they conjure together?
In other words, Ruby Sparks briefly defects from the meta-movie realm into the more straightforward world of conflicts resolved by happy endings. It doesn’t not work—there’s too much genuinely great stuff going on. Perhaps I was a little disappointed only because Kazan, Dayton, and Faris come closer than any movie since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to piercing the dark, refractive heart driving the strange and changeable course of our romantic ideals.
More by this author:
- Cliché-ridden 'Gangster Squad' is little more than a garish genre wank
- '56 Up,' the latest in Michael Apted's series, confronts middle age and what it means to make a life