Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Ruby Sparks (2012)

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Writer: Zoe Kazan

In 2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris burst onto the scene with their feature film directorial debut, Little Miss Sunshine. It was a poignant film that celebrated the quirks of a dysfunctional family. Fast forward six years, and they have returned to the screen with Ruby Sparks—a film that is not as quirky or cohesive as the couple's debut, but still works as a piece of escapism. While this is Dayton and Faris' second directorial effort, it is Zoe Kazan's debut as a screenwriter.  

Paul Dano stars as Calvin, an author in his late 20s who is plagued by writer's block. Calvin wrote an acclaimed novel at the age of 19, so he has great standards to live up to. Lacking inspiration, he seeks advice from his therapist, Dr Rosenthal (Elliott Gould), who assigns him with a writing task. Calvin is instructed to write a page about someone who finds his pet dog, Scotty, adorable. Calvin isn't exactly fond of his dog, so this is a potentially challenging assignment. That night, Calvin dreams that he is walking Scotty in a park when he encounters the girl of his dreams (Zoe Kazan). She draws a picture of Scotty, and says she likes him. Upon waking, Calvin rushes to his typewriter and writes several pages about this gorgeous woman. His epiphany has arrived. He gives this wondrous beauty the name 'Ruby Sparks', and makes her the protagonist of his next novel. He soon realises that he is enthusiastic about working on this new project because, when he writes about Ruby, he feels like he's spending time with her. It doesn't take long for Calvin to bring Ruby into fruition, and by this, I mean Ruby Sparks is "written into" existence by Calvin. She becomes a living, tangible person, and Calvin can make her do anything just by typing her actions on the page. It takes Calvin a while to accept this, and his brother (Chris Messina) thinks he's crazy. Calvin and Ruby enter into a relationship which will contain several ups and downs.

This is a film to watch if you are after a breezy escape, but it just falls short of being the study of the human condition that it probably hoped to be. Much of Kazan's dialogue is stuff we've heard a thousand times before in similar movies. but she'll improve as she gets some more writing experience under her belt. My main criticism of the film is how the central gimmick is employed. Calvin can make Ruby do absolutely anything simply by typing it out on his typewriter. This gimmick allows so many possibilities, and at 104 minutes' long, the film doesn't have the time to explore this plot device to its fullest potential. I'm not necessarily saying that Calvin should have made Ruby do more things, but rather that he could have made her do more interesting things. It is worth considering the reflexive nature of this film. Here we have Zoe Kazan inventing a character (Calvin) who will invent the character Ruby Sparks, who Kazan herself will portray. It would have been challenging to pull this off, so I admire Kazan's ambition. 

And what about the character of Ruby Sparks? I watched the film and associated her with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. She reminded me of Summer (Zooey Deschanel) in (500) Days of Summer, or Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Kazan has dismissed the archetype as a myth, deeming it misogynist and wishing for its death. If Ruby is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, I'd put the onus on Calvin as a character, and not on Kazan as a writer. 

This film reminded me of Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction, in which Will Ferrell starred as a man whose life was being narrated by a disembodied voice. However, Ruby Sparks isn't as metaphysical as Stranger Than Fiction. The latter concerns itself with the dynamics of comedy and tragedy, whereas the former places more emphasis on the affordances of fiction, and provides the audience with hope for serendipity. I also noticed a slight parallel between Ruby Sparks and Frankenstein. I won't give it away in this review, but it has something to do with the sentience and self-actualisation of a creation. Stephen King fans may also be reminded of the short story Word Processor of the Gods.

This is not a performance-driven film, but the acting is as strong as it has to be. I've seen Paul Dano in a few films now, but this was the first time I've seen him give a comedic performance. He is a good physical comedian, but I think he is better suited to dramatic performances. Zoe Kazan is mesmerising, and you will fall in love with her just as Calvin does. Annette Bening plays Calvin's mother: an adherent of New Age philosophy, and Antonio Banderas plays her equally eccentric partner. Bening and Banderas are sorely underused, and it almost felt as though they were included as filler.  

Ruby Sparks tries harder than most romantic comedy-drama films these days. It tackles the dilemma of the artist who cannot decide whether to produce work for their ego or for an audience. It deliciously tiptoes on the border of fantasy and reality, and presents the idea that the creative autonomy of an artist negates the need for such a strict binary. The problem is that these issues are addressed through the gimmick of the all-powerful typewriter, which stalls the fluidity and evenness of the film.

3.5/5 stars. 


Postscript: This will go down in history as the first movie I saw by myself at a cinema, believe it or not. There were only five other people who attended the session—all girls around my age, and all seated within a five-metre radius of me (including one who sat right next to me). As you could imagine, I was living vicariously through the character of Calvin. A very interesting, self-aware viewing experience. 

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