MOVIE REVIEW: Ruby Sparks
RUBY SPARKS-- 4 STARS
Even before we watch movies like Inception or even Nightmare on Elm Street, we know that our dreams have dynamic and unexplained details. Many of us have frequently dreamed about love at some point or another in our lives. If you have, there's a good chance you've dreamed a human embodiment of a lover. If you haven't, then you're not dreaming hard enough. Bear with me for a second.
Maybe that human embodiment in a dream was someone you knew or pined for, but maybe, once or twice, it was someone who was a completely fictitious person created by your mind. Outside of our dreams, we've likely been asked by many sources and people to describe our ideal partner. If that partner isn't sitting next to you right now on the couch or across the table, you probably close your eyes and craft an amalgamated mental image of various traits. It's probably nothing concretely distinctive, a little dash of this and little pinch of that, but it's a picture nonetheless.
The clever yarn of Ruby Sparks, the new film from the directing team of Little Miss Sunshine, is the notion that one man can will his dreamed ideal lover to life through the words of his prose and keyed letters of his typewriter as an author. As a plot idea fit for the magic of movies, what Ruby Sparks sets out to do is fun and ambitious despite the tough logical sell of that concept. This is a different grain of salt and required suspension of disbelief here than for something like a superhero movie. Take it from me. This one tastes and goes down more like sugar than salt.
Our central character of Ruby Sparks is Calvin Weir-Fields played by the excellent Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine). Calvin wrote a grandly successful novel at the age of 19 and he's been plagued with writer's block for a decade since. He has been able to live comfortably off of that first novel's success and acclaim, but has slowly become a more troubled, reclusive, unlucky, and borderline has-been 29-year-old stuck on novel #2.
His sole friend is his extroverted brother Harry (TV star Chris Messina), who drags him to the gym and encourages him to get laid. He is distant with the rest of his family, namely his widowed hippy mother (who else but Annette Bening) and her new boyfriend (Antonio Banderas). Outside of that circle, he deals with a Lothario-esque fellow author Langdon Sharp (British extraordinaire Steve Coogan) at book shows, his pushy agent Cyrus (Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show), and his amused therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould).
At home, the one thing keeping Calvin busy is his dog Scotty, named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. The dog was a suggestion of his therapist as a means get out and meet people, but even that doesn't work. When Dr. Rosenthal propositions Calvin to write a one-page essay about a potential person he could meet that would like Scotty, he rebuffs the idea. That night, he goes home and has a vivid dream about meeting a beautiful sun-lit redhead (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of director Elia Kazan) that he strikes up a conversation with at the park. After waking up, the creative inspiration to write bursts out of Calvin. He channels his constant visualizations in the coming days and nights of this woman and puts them into writing. He names the character "Ruby Sparks." Soon enough, he's flying through what could become his second great novel.
After Calvin, Harry, and his wife (Toni Trucks) come home after a night out to find odd women's clothing around Calvin's place, they are suspicious and so is Calvin. The next morning, Calvin is stunned to find Ruby herself making breakfast in his kitchen and talking like they've been seeing each other as frequently and detailed as his dreams. Calvin freaks out for a bit, convinced that she's not real and just a hallucination of his overactive and clinically flawed imagination.
The crazy thing is, though, other people can see, touch, and talk to her too. Ruby is flesh and blood. Even crazier, Calvin discovers that whatever he types on the pages of his novel about her comes true instantly (which creates some playful scenarios of him testing that theory). Having created, in his opinion, the perfect partner in Ruby, Calvin stops writing his novel, throws logic out the window, and goes all-in for a relationship with Ruby. He's never been happier, but how long can real-life perfection born from fiction last?
What happens when the bloom of a new relationship wears off and love gets complicated? Will Calvin reach for that typewriter and flex his ego to change Ruby? Ruby Sparks plays this unpredictability out beautifully. There's never a predictable moment in the entire film. With its recipe of unspoken magic, flawed relationships, and ideals on finding inspiration and perfection and daring to keep them, Ruby Sparks is a wholly different, unique, challenging, and satisfying romantic comedy experience.
For its impossible concept, the result feels so realistically and believably presented that you go along with it. I was stunned to learn that the film was written by Zoe Kazan herself, which added to my appreciation. The Little Miss Sunshine directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris were well-suited to bring this fun to life and pace it perfectly. Like the improbable young lovers of Moonrise Kingdom earlier this year, you root and fall for Calvin and Ruby. Paul Dano and Kazan are competing with them right now for movie couple of the year. Their performances are honest, bold, and excellent.
The closest romantic comparison to Ruby Sparks that I can offer as a reference is (500) Days of Summer with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Both movies show the beginning, middle, and end of an up-and-down relationship from a troubled male point-of-view. Both movies tell their story with unflinching emotion and honesty. I'm one of the few that didn't like (500) Days of Summer, but I was really impressed by Ruby Sparks. It's likely not a movie for everyone, but put me down as enjoying the improbable magic of Ruby Sparks's concept. That's the difference between the two that hooked me.
LESSON #1: THE ROOTS OF INSPIRATION-- All good authors, from those of innocent children's books to the deepest heady adult fiction, tap many different personal sources for their inspiration to write and create. No matter what plethora they dive into, the result is always personal on some level. In Ruby Sparks, Calvin is no different, channeling his own life, childhood, therapy, wants, and dreams. His inspirations just turn into more than words. Uh oh! No, I didn't! Hit the 80's Extreme song!
LESSON #2: WHAT CAN HAPPEN WITH AN OVERACTIVE IMAGINATION-- When you first examine the idea of an overactive imagination, you might dismiss that from being a problem and might even be jealous that you don't have one of your own. Be careful. While having a well of creativity and ideas can be a blessing for certain parts of our life, there is legitimate trouble in the form of fulfillment and being able to turn it off. It's impossible to channel and experience everything in an overactive imagination, creating equal disappointment to go with the triumph. It sounds great at first, but does have its drawbacks.
LESSON #3: LOVING SOMEONE'S MESS-- If you've either found or lost love in your life (or both), you know what I mean. Every person in this world is uniquely detailed, layered, quirky, weird, and flawed. Simply put, we are each our own mess of issues and qualities. To love another person, you have to be willing, unconditionally, to accept their mess and allow them to share in your own. You have to take the good with the bad. Ruby Sparks, for all its magic surrounding imagined perfection, still nails the peaks and valleys of loving someone's mess.