There’s that moment in every relationship where the honeymoon phase ends; where the idealist shell you’ve constructed around your partner cracks and suddenly you see the messy reality underneath. Suddenly that nice guy gentleman demonstrates a terrifying surge of temper in front of you, or the manic pixie dream girl reveals she’s not perkiness, sunshine and unpredictable sex all the time. Typically you go on to accept those flaws but there’s no denying the disappointment – that loss of the initial “love magic” – that your partner doesn’t match your dream.
Well, what if you had the power to control your lover’s behaviour; to erase all those irritating quirks? Would you use it and bend them to your will? Is happiness possible if such one-sided manipulation is taking place? These questions are central to romantic fantasy Ruby Sparks, the surprisingly potent sophomore film effort from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Upfront it must be noted that Ruby Sparks is not a full-blown comedy. The film’s trailer may portray it as feather-light romantic fluff, but the whimsy evaporates very quickly as the story becomes darker and painfully honest about the evolution of relationships. So while Ruby Sparks may start off looking like a hipster indie effort – complete with insecure, nerdy writer Calvin (Paul Dano) hunched over a typewriter, walking his adorable, similarly neurotic mutt and requesting a comfort teddy at his therapist’s office – the film features a climax that, though bloodless, rivals torture porn for its disturbing nature.
In terms of plot, Ruby Sparks is basically a riff on the Pygmalion story. Having achieved massive success at 19 with his debut novel, Calvin has since suffered from paralysing writer’s block. A decade later and the only thing that gets him working again is an assignment centred on the woman of his dreams. Literally. Then one day he wakes up to find that his beloved free-spirited fictional creation – Ruby Sparks, thee quintessential manic pixie dream girl – is flesh and blood, and played by Zoe Kazan (who also wrote the film’s screenplay).
To begin with, Calvin and Ruby are blissfully happy, but as time passes the characters mature and change – which is unusual for your standard movie romance. Ruby actually transforms from a trope into a real person with genuine dissatisfactions, mostly to do with how confined her relationship is with withdrawn Calvin. At the same time, Calvin’s inadequacies and fears become even more apparent, revealing him as a highly flawed, selfish protagonist. What Calvin types, Ruby does, and his paranoia about losing her leads to some awful manipulation of her actions and emotions.
This kind of character-centric film really hinges on versatile, convincing performances, so kudos to the film’s stars for their work here, which manages to remain poignant despite the gear shifts. Kazan, who has the hardest job, with the finest line to tread, is especially good and likeable without being irritating. She and Dano are in turn supported by a small but charming cast that includes Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas and Steve Coogan; all of whom are far more in line with cheerful, socially comfortable Ruby than Calvin.
As a movie, Ruby Sparks isn’t subtle but thankfully it’s never pretentious or overly quirky. Despite the film’s confinement to the art house circuit, and despite the fact that it goes to some uncomfortable places, it is very accessible for mainstream viewers of both sexes. This is no chick flick! As an added bonus, you never get that feeling common to indie flicks that the movie is floating aimlessly, with no clear narrative direction.
The only real drawback of Ruby Sparks is its final scene, which seems more “Hollywood” than anything that precedes it. Frankly, a (500) Days of Summer-style conclusion would have been more credible. But speaking of that 2009 sleeper hit, it’s not a stretch to say that Ruby Sparks is its 2012 equivalent – a very enjoyable, emotionally effective gem in the genre that is too often stuffed with saccharine, lazily assembled junk food.
Last Updated: October 9, 2012