Ruby Sparks is a profoundly sad tale of self-loathing masquerading as a cutesy romantic comedy. The purple-stockings and free spirit of the eponymous female lead and the intensely nervy, intensely unsociable demeanour of the intensely talented writer who loves her may suggest this would be akin to McSweeney’s: The Movie. Mercifully, it never succumbs to the pitfalls one would expect it to. Though author Calvin (Paul Dano) magicks up his dream girl on a typewriter, the picture never delves into the depravity of swill like Weird Science. Nor does it defy reality – well, beyond the miraculous central concept – and treat the creation like some perpetually perfect, unchanging, inhuman entity. Ruby Sparks is about a lonely boy who writes a love story to himself; who makes from his rib an eternal companion, only to discover that Eve’s just not that into Adam.
Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris took six years to select a second project, and they could have done a lot worse than taken a chance on star Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia), for whom this marks her first produced feature screenplay. The manic pixie dream girl she’s created for herself is much more than any catchy nomenclature could ever adequately define. She comes to the almost-agoraphobic Calvin in a dream, and becomes the subject of a simple writing assignment set by his therapist (Elliot Gould). Suddenly, the fear of following up his hit, decade-old debut novel dissipates, and he’s got a whole book dedicated to this ideal specimen: a red-haired, bike-riding, bad boy-loving, sundress-wearing flibbertigibbet by the name of Ruby.
The next morning, on account of the same unexplained supernatural forces that doomed Bill Murray to relive Groundhog Day over and over again, Calvin finds Ruby made flesh in his kitchen. Though he immediately assumes a mental break, she follows him out into the world where he discovers that everyone else can see her too. For whatever reason, she’s come to life with no knowledge of her literary birth. He finally has the girlfriend he’s always dreamed of; one who will adore him forever and won’t leave him like the former lover who broke his heart.
Everything about the set-up to Ruby Sparks sounds wildly misogynistic – not unlike Weird Science – and perhaps if a man had written it, it would’ve ended in a misogynistic manner too. But Kazan is not content with writing or playing a flawless, unquestioning companion. As Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) observes after reading the first draft of the book: she isn’t a person, she’s a girl. When freed from the confines of his imagination, Ruby indeed evolves from a ‘girl’ to a fully-fledged, three-dimensional person, who tires of being locked away in Calvin’s Ibsenesque Doll’s House, gets grumpy, frustrated, yearns for friends, wants to earn her own money, be her own person, and live her own life. Dare Calvin write a few more pages, add to her attributes, and lock her into doing and saying whatever he pleases for the rest of their lives? This question is answered in the picture’s sad final act, in which the seemingly sweet boy turns cruel.
Dano and Kazan – a real-life couple – have spellbinding chemistry, yet are unafraid to examine and explore the ugly side of couplehood too. Supporting performers like Gould, Messina, and particularly Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas (as Calvin’s hippy-dippy folks) are fun on the fringes, but it’s up to the two young leads to carry the film, and they do a fine job of it. Dayton and Faris might have indulged their young screenwriter too much, as the picture is longer than it needs to be. Still, they capture the sweet spot between endearing romance and melancholy in their tone.
Ruby Sparks is a slightly more despairing experience than I had anticipated. However, like (500) Days of Summer, it too understands that in the search for love, there’s always a little pain before the pleasure comes. Watching Ruby Sparks, however, is entirely a pleasure.
Ruby Sparks is now showing in Australian cinemas.