Your enjoyment of Ruby Sparks will come down entirely to whether you are someone who can switch their brain off, or someone who tends to over-think complicated ideas. Certainly no one involved in this bright romantic fantasy had their brains turned on, as if they had they might have realised the morally rotten core at the heart of an apparently charming little movie. The subtext of this film is frightening, but what’s truly terrifying is that it seems like no one who worked on the film is aware of it in the slightest.
Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer suffering a creative block, who a decade earlier had his only hit while still a teenager, with one of those books that ‘speaks’ to people. Burdened with all of the emotional issues (a dead father, a remarried mother, a slowly becoming successful ex), Calvin can’t get started on his new book. He’s the kooky kind you find in movies – he uses a typewriter like an obnoxious hipster, lives off his one successful book and has a dog with gender identity problems. The dog is named Scotty, after F. Scott Fitzgerald; at one point in the film it shreds a copy of Catcher in the Rye. You get the idea.
Unable to meet a girl, Calvin’s psychiatrist recommends he try writing about his dream girl. He invents a girl with the sort of idiosyncrasies he finds attractive, imagines her being pretty but not overwhelmingly so, and then gives her the name of a bad drag queen act. Soon, thanks to his magic typewriter (probably?), Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) is made flesh. While Calvin assumes he has gone insane, Ruby believes they’ve been in a relationship for some time and acts as if she’s always existed, unaware she is his creation. Soon Calvin and Ruby are happy together – she’s the sort of girl who likes zombie movies and jumps into pools unexpectedly; who could resist? But it’s not long before her underwritten life (she has no job or friends) and Calvin’s jealousy and fear of abandonment kick in, and he’s back at his typewriter literally changing her.
On the surface, Kazan, who also wrote the film, has scripted a somewhat clever takedown of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ phenomenon, highlighting the implausibility of male expectations in a similar manner to how Weird Science looked at the fantasy of the buxom bombshell back in the ’80s. But scratch away that surface and a far nastier film is revealed. After running out of ideas halfway through her script, Kazan has opted for a conclusion that is unsuitably creepy. And I don’t mean ‘threatening text message from your ex’ creepy, I mean ‘walking in on your mother in bed with a stranger and it turns out it’s you from the future’ creepy.
At first Calvin’s rewrites do little more than lobotomise Ruby, leaving her a quivering, weeping mess or a braindead giggling simpleton, but later things turn even more disturbing for the writer and his intolerable mind puppet. He becomes so possessive that his writing of Ruby begins to physically abuse her, before ultimately forcing her to perform (mild) sexual acts against her will. Worse still, the film rewards him for ‘learning’ from his spate of domestic abuse with a happy ending. It is tonally completely unsuitable, and it reeks of desperation in storytelling and/or the writer being too clueless to understand her own work. Kazan’s only writing project prior to this was her dire, drab play We Live Here, an under-edited vanity project also about rich people’s problems that ran off-Broadway last year, so perhaps it was premature to expect her to write a feature film that didn’t raise this many eyebrows. But the very fact that Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Dano plays her inventor/tormenter adds an additional layer of ick to the proceedings, upgrading Hurricane Ruby from unsettling shit-storm to grotesque rape fantasy.
Kazan, while not much the writer, proves herself once again a strong screen presence, and captures Ruby’s various mood shifts well enough. Dano on the other hand weasels his way through the despicable role as best he can, but it’s not enough to rescue the character – where’s Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin when you need him? Annette Bening grates as Calvin’s hippie mum, while Antonio Banderas almost charms as her eccentric artist husband. Elliott Gould and Steve Coogan pop up briefly in roles they could do in their sleep, while Chris Messina steals what little of the film he can as Calvin’s jock-with-a-heart brother Harry, who also gets the best of Kazan’s few good lines.
Returning to filmmaking for their first time since their 2006 Oscar-winning breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine, director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make their talents known here – Ruby Sparks is finely, brightly shot throughout and tidily cut with passable montages. People run excitedly to stirring music. It would all be quite lovely if it weren’t for that damn script.
And it all comes down to the script in the end. Telling us repeatedly that Calvin is a genius of a writer when all evidence points to the contrary (just as his faults are written into Ruby, Kazan’s are written into him), Kazan has unintentionally drawn a metaphor for her own script – just because she is famous does not make her a storyteller. Attempting to address similar issues to (500) Days of Summer, she has written a similarly faulted protagonist, but with none of the same charm (and indeed Paul Dano is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt). While those who can mentally gloss over its sordid subtext may enjoy a romcom with a twist, Ruby Sparks will remain a difficult film about an unlikeable, self-absorbed cur who gets to imagine his cake and eat it too.
Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Ruby Sparks is released on 12th October 2012