Thinking about Ruby Sparks is more interesting than watching it. Written by Zoe Kazan, who also co-stars, the film is never anything less than fascinating on a conceptual and thematic level. But on a scene-by-scene basis, the pacing is faulty, and the verve of the overarching ideas sometimes gets lost in the unstable focus of Kazan’s screenplay. By formatting most of the movie in borderline romantic-comedy terms, Ruby Sparks doesn’t ever become tedious — Kazan and Paul Dano, a real-life couple, are fun to watch together — but it misses opportunities to investigate the story’s implications as thoroughly as we’d like.
Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, an approaching-30 novelist who’s spent the past decade creatively stunted by the enormous success of his debut work, which he wrote when he was only a teenager. With academic-looking glasses, rolled-up dress shirts, and the occasional mild cardigan, Dano nails the writerly appearance. More impressively, he molds the character’s interior, too, constructing a recognizable and scrupulous psychological complexity. He walks with hesitation, talks with a defeated shyness, and when people call him a “genius” for being able to come up with such an accomplished first novel, he squirms as if he’s been insulted.
As Calvin tells his shrink, Dr. Rosenthal (the welcome sight of Elliott Gould), he rarely feels comfortable in public places, whether it be ceremonious occasions, like the tenth anniversary of his only published novel, or more mundane ones, like walking his dog Scottie — who pees like a girl, despite being a boy — through the park. This irritating second-guessing has turned Calvin’s literary output obsolete, and, although you wouldn’t guess it from his well-groomed wardrobe or his sleekly adorned home, Calvin appears to be slipping into a state of depression.
Dr. Rosenthal notices this, and comes up with a homework assignment for Calvin. He asks him to write a story in which he comes across a stranger who accepts Scottie’s insecurity. It doesn’t have to be a good story, Rosenthal tells him. It doesn’t even have to be more than a page. The point, I’m guessing, is to generate some positivity in Calvin’s life, which has become stagnant and unproductive.
That night, Calvin dreams about meeting a girl in the park, a pretty, red-haired free spirit named Ruby Sparks (Kazan). She likes Scottie, appears to like Calvin, and he wakes up the next morning and bolts to his typewriter in a flash. The pages pour out of him. He’s elated in the moment, as he must have been when he wrote his first book, which Steve Coogan’s Langdon Tharp tells us is destined to become an American classic. He’s excited by life again.
But then Ruby steps out of Calvin’s typewriter and transforms into an actual being. Calvin thinks he’s crazy, that his loneliness has finally gotten the better of him. But other people can see Ruby, too. Calvin’s brother, Harry (Chris Messina), eats her food and learns about her childhood, which was created in Calvin’s mind. Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and her new boyfriend (Antonio Banderas) invite Calvin and Ruby up to their Big Sur retreat, and fall in love with her just as Calvin has.
It’s an original premise, and the vagueness of how Kazan handles the logistics of it ensures a measure of ambiguity. But the film never completely embraces the wackiness of its driving idea. Every so often, it gets there, as in the moments when Calvin realizes he can manipulate Ruby’s behavior through his writing. If his story says that she speaks in fluent French, then she speaks in fluent French, and so forth. Admirably, too, the film doesn’t shy away from the moral inconsistencies that result.
Ruby Sparks is directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who last made the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. That film, somewhat conventional but not without merit, was more of a streamlined crowd-pleaser, and you can tell from Fox Searchlight’s decision to drop Ruby Sparks in the dog days of summer that this one is different. It’s looser and more complicated, even confused with itself at times, and it’s sure, especially in its curtain-closing moments, to lose some people.
I appreciate the film, and find it worth analyzing from all sorts of angles. That Kazan’s screenplay is so committed to both its emotional and its intellectual sides makes for a bumpy sit, keeping us unsure as to whether the conflict we’re observing is more related to the literary process or the nature of relationships. But you only have to consider something as simple as Messina’s character to acknowledge the care with which this story is handled. It could be a throwaway role, and it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference overall. But everything he says is saturated with insight.
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