Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Stars: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening
Plot: A successful but lonely novelist who suddenly suffers from writer’s block finds the answer by creating a female character to love him…but who then astonishingly materialises.
It’s surely the ultimate fantasy for any novelist; to create a character who actually comes to life, not only on the page but in real life. Such an idea pushes the boundaries of imagination and is one step up from getting your words adapted for the screen. Will Ferrell’s Harold Crick suddenly found his days were numbered by a mysterious narrator who he sought out in Stranger Than Fiction, but in Ruby Sparks our protagonist writer directly conjures up in front of his eyes, what he imagines to be the perfect woman.
A young novelist, Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) has enjoyed widespread success with his first effort, but is now struggling to find inspiration for the follow-up. His therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) assigns him a task to write a page about someone who likes his dog, Scotty. Calvin then has a dream about a woman who draws a picture of Scotty and says she likes him. Calvin admits to Rosenthal that he has been inspired to write about this woman who he names Ruby Sparks (Kazan) and that he is falling in love with her. Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) and his sister-in-law Susie (Toni Trucks) both come to visit and find articles of women’s clothing around the house. To Calvin’s shock and disbelief, the next day he finds Ruby in his kitchen.
Thinking he is going mad, Calvin calls Harry who doesn’t believe him and tells his brother to go out and take his mind off everything. Ruby can’t seem to understand why Calvin is trying to avoid her and goes shopping while he meets with Mabel (Alia Shawkat), a fan of his book at a cafe. Ruby shows up and Calvin is amazed to find that other people can see her; she is not after all a figment of his imagination. Ruby and Calvin have an argument, but they make up when he explains that he finds everything rather stressful. Calvin introduces Ruby to Harry, who tries to find an explanation. Calvin and Harry soon discover that Ruby can be manipulated by whatever Calvin types on his typewriter – this revelation leads to the situation to quickly spiral out of hand when Calvin tries to control his new creation.
Ruby Sparks is not your (well below) average romantic comedy. Too often have we seen rom-coms with chemistry-less romance and no laughs whatsoever (Made of Honour and The Ugly Truth are guilty as charged) and the genre as a whole has suffered from some extremely lazy scriptwriting and sloth-like casting (you know who you are, Gerard Butler). So, if you’re expecting the same old ‘hilarious’ scenarios and cringeworthy dialogue, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Zoe Kazan, who also stars as the title character, has written a screenplay from the heart as opposed to a team of writers bashing their heads together in search of a one-joke film. The characters feel genuine, even though Ruby herself is clearly a figment of Calvin’s imagination; the storyline is amusing, heartfelt but above all very original, even though you could say it does lend itself in the broadest sense to Stranger Than Fiction. While Will Ferrell’s comedy played everything purely for dry laughs, Ruby has at its centre a plot which, though is pure fantasy, feels very real – and that is a great testament to both Kazan and everyone involved. To dismiss the film as a ‘chick-flick’ would be easy, but when you have a winning idea and interesting characters for a change, this appeals to a much wider audience.
The worst romantic comedies tend to fall at the first hurdle due to horrific casting choices. Shoehorning in whichever Hollywood stars seem to be doing the rounds at the time tends to be the norm. However, real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan have real chemistry (as opposed to Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli) and, as a result, we can get onboard with the story very easily. Dano is terrific as Calvin – he is our eyes and ears throughout the film, as we follow the remarkable chain of events unfolding from his perspective. His lead character is neither a sappy drip trying to get the girl nor a hunky guy trying to be sensitive, but instead sits between the two as a happy medium. Kazan’s turn as Ruby shows her to be one to watch for the future; she conveys her character’s rollercoaster of emotions from one extreme to the other in both an affecting and humorous way. Kazan’s scenes in which she becomes incredibly clingy are the highlight of the film and are sure to raise the most laughs. As for the supporting cast, Chris Messina excels as Harry, being his younger brother’s voice of reason, Elliott Gould has a nice turn as Calvin’s therapist, with Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas appearing briefly in arguably the weakest part of the film in scenes reminiscent of Meet The Fockers.
Ruby Sparks breaks the mould of thoroughly insipid rom-coms and gives us something to actually enjoy, not endure. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ dreamy style of direction matches the subject matter perfectly, which turns out to be a real thought-provoker. Hopefully this is the first of many writing/acting projects in which we will see Zoe Kazan feature.