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Ruby Sparks

July 25, 2012
Ruby Sparks

This could have gone really badly. I mean, just from the premise, Ruby Sparks is treading on some dangerous ground. It takes the central conceit from Stranger Than Fiction and flips it around to have a man in control of a woman through his writing, which is just begging to get ugly. But screenwriter and star Zoe Kazan — who has never leapt out at me as an actress — manages to skirt the danger and take this premise in a different direction entirely. It may be a little pretentious; it may be a little affected; but the message at its heart is true, and even important.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) was a wunderkind of a novelist, landing at 19 with a big splash of a first novel; ten years later he’s mired in writer’s block and emotional solitude. His dog, Scotty, after F. Scott Fitzgerald, is neurotic and afraid of strangers, which is pretty much a therapist’s wet dream. And, indeed, his therapist (Elliott Gould) assigns him to write just a page about someone who likes Scotty just as he is, with all the metonymic overtones that entails.

And this does break the logjam. In his sleep, Calvin comes up with Ruby Sparks (Kazan), who bursts through his 1955 Olympia typewriter and onto the page. But it doesn’t stop there; Calvin is so immersed in his writing that he barely notices things appearing around his house. An espadrille here, a brassiere there — he chalks it up to Scotty dragging things in from the neighbor’s trash until one day Ruby is there in his kitchen when he wakes up.

Some experimentation with his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), confirms not only that Ruby is real, but that anything Calvin types about her comes true. And, despite the creepy urge acknowledged through Harry not to “let this go to waste”, Calvin forswears writing about her again. Ruby is perfect the way she is.

The character he’s written is basically the exact sort of quirky, messy girl that Zooey Deschanel has come to personify — the kind that, as Harry points out when Ruby is still only words on the page, doesn’t really exist. The genius of Ruby Sparks is that she actually is real, and thus not this caricature that a wide swath of indie culture all but fetishizes.

But Calvin has an ace up his sleeve: his manuscript, locked in his desk drawer. But controlling another human being is not nearly so easy as he expects. This is the ugly truth the film lays bare: “nice guys” can be just as domineering and misogynistic as the “jerks” whose success they love to bemoan. If anything, the jerks are more honest about it.

And Dano, while I can never quite take him seriously, does a fairly good job of externalizing both this transformation and his dawning self-awareness. Kazan gets to show off a bit, not only playing the quirky Deschanel-esque version of Ruby at the outset, but also the one who evolves and grows into herself, and then the one subjected to Calvin’s various impositions.

All of this is brought together under the careful watch of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, of Little Miss Sunshine fame. From time to time their composition makes the most of possibly confusing sequences, but for the most part they’re good enough to get out of the way and let Kazan’s script shine.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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