Directed by: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins Rating: R Release Date: July 25, 2012 (Chicago)
PLOT: With great pressure to return from his first masterpiece, young author Calvin (Dano) begins writing about a woman he sees in his dreams named Ruby (played by Kazan). To his shock, she appears in his kitchen one morning as a real person.
WHO'S IT FOR?: This story has the ability to delight many, especially if one likes cute couples, the creative process, and books. Grumpy people who think reading is boring will probably find this to be a waste of time.
EXPECTATIONS: Co-directors Dayton & Faris are finally returning to the big screen after 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, this time with another first-time original screenplay. Would it be a step forward from their previous hit, or a cutesy step back?
Paul Dano as Calvin: Though he is playing another writer (this one coming after Being Flynn), the usually serious Dano shows off his limberness, proving to be quite the comical klutz during the movie’s wackier (funnier) moments. Dano makes a seemingly pretentious character likable, showing both humor and sincerity within this extraordinary situation. He reminds us of the humanity in the fantastical situation – would we behave any better if we had his typewriter? Score: 7
Zoe Kazan as Ruby Sparks: This type of character, whether Kazan really wants it to be such or not, can easily be perceived as what Nathan Rabin has called “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” To Kazan’s credit (she wrote this part for herself,) this one has larger context. This is a deconstruction of the MPDG, exposing how past characters played by Zooey Deschanel or Kirsten Dunst are the concoction of wistful (male) writers more than they could ever be real human beings. Kazan is able to break down the label that is surely to be put on her character, while also using this emotional limberness to her advantage in order to put her many acting abilities on display. Score: 7
Chris Messina as Harry: A non-creative business guy, Harry is a perfect contrast to Calvin, and a fitting surrogate for the audience as we try to accept this film's strange concept. As the relatable comic relief, Messina controls his character from being too simple himself, despite being someone not very important to the rest of the story. Messina provides a meaningful portrayal of the type of guy who thinks being able to change their partner would ultimately improve things. Score: 6
TALKING: Without winking too much at its audience, the dialogue of Ruby Sparks keeps its attitude playful. A reference to Harvey, or the idea that “love stories are only for girls,” is fitting tongue-in-cheek for a movie that is smart enough to keep audiences at the same level, but also not condescending that it would speak down to them. Score: 7
SIGHTS: The cinematography captures the essence of Calvin's spacious writing space nicely, while providing some impressive views of an unusually calm Los Angeles. References to literary books themselves are slim, but for fun Ruby Sparks does feature a moment in which a dog tears up J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye." Score: 6
SOUNDS: Nick Urata (of DeVotchKa, who scored Little Miss Sunshine) contributes energetic string pieces to the Ruby Sparks soundtrack. Though his indie Philip Glass strings do have some effect on the story, he finds the most magic with the movie's sweetness in a simple melody that is best heard at the very end of the movie. "Ca Plane Pour Moi" by Plastic Bertrand, which is not the most original song to play during a high energy montage, is heard along with a couple other tunes of French pop. Score: 6
BEST SCENE: Ruby Sparks reaches its peak when Calvin's relationship with Ruby is at its most stress-less. The klutzy mystery has been solved to both Ruby's creator, and an outsider (Messina's Harry). This is when the elated Calvin declares to us that she is his dream girl.
ENDING: "Don't tell me how it ends, okay?"
QUESTIONS: You can read my interview with Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan here. After that, here's my interview with co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris!
REWATCHABILITY: Ruby Sparks is charming enough to warrant casual revisits, though some parts of the movie are probably only best the first time.
The love that has brought Ruby Sparks to life is a story worthy of a sweet indie of its own. Though the personal lives of filmmakers should usually be off-territory for a review, this is the type of movie that cheerfully invites the exception. Including our level of reality, Ruby Sparks is actually the story of a girl (Kazan) who writes a story about a boy (Dano) who writes a story about a girl (who is played by Kazan) that he declares to be his dream girl. To keep this indie love locomotion moving, the story is realized by co-directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, two people who are so in tune with their love of life and work that they married each other.
This is all bonus background to Ruby Sparks, a movie with a unique spin on the "blank page" cliché that can certainly stand on its own. While this is the story of a writer and his imagined to life "dream girl," this concept manages to explore a relationship's uglier truths, such as the power that fate has over any type of desire to change a loved one's feelings or circumstances. Toying through the concept of controlling a character, first-time writer Kazan finds a clever method to honor creativity while speaking about love itself.
Kazan, a Zoe from the era of Zooey Deschanel, does provide a strong deconstruction of the aforementioned "manic pixie dream girl." By writing herself a character (with red hair, mind you) who is controlled by the dreams of a boy, and goes through the many exaggerated representations of being clingy or distant, she offers a very amusing deconstruction of the emotional perversions that create characters like Ruby in the first place. It is one of the movie's more sly ways of showing self-awareness, but one in which Ruby Sparks might be best remembered with in time.
Ruby Sparks only shows its imperfections in small doses. At times the relationship roller coaster of Ruby and Calvin can feel redundant, or a couple scenes feel too long. A family reunion with Calvin and his family proves little point other than providing more "quirky" characters, and wastes the unexpected appearances of two AB's - Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. Even the hip conceits of the movie can be a bit too much. We are weary of manic pixie dream girls, so can their love for French things and French pop music go away too?
Woven together with some real feelings and a little meta-magic, Ruby Sparks is a sweet movie about the passion that brings love out of a blank page.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10