Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ruby Sparks

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has a problem. He's a beloved young novelist who is welcome at lectures and parties, and there is interest from Hollywood in turning his one novel into a movie. Alone in his impossibly white Los Angeles house, Calvin knows his life is about to come crashing down for the simple reason that he can't think of anything to write for novel number two. That is where we start in Ruby Sparks, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine and written by actress Zoe Kazan. Kazan also plays the title character, a young woman who pops into existence as Calvin's girlfriend after he begins writing a novel about his perfect woman. The movie wisely doesn't linger over the paranormal elements of the story; Ruby is here, she's with Calvin, and Calvin can change her by sitting down at his typewriter and beginning to work. Only of course he'd never do that, right?

Ruby Sparks begins as giddy romantic fantasy; Calvin and Ruby go to outdoor movies, cuddle in bed, and share a meal with Calvin's brother Harry (Chris Messina), the only one who knows of Ruby's improbable origins. Kazan is after something more though, and Ruby Sparks ends up being a movie about the male gaze and what men want women to do for them. We've seen characters like Ruby before; see Natalie Portman in Garden State or Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. Here Zoe Kazan stops to consider how to exhausting it must be for women to imbue thin, confused white men with all that energy. Ruby loves Calvin and even connects with his back-to-nature parents (funny, broad turns from Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas), but she can't help feeling like life holds more. An art class leads to one night a week away from Calvin, who begins to give in to the temptation of reshaping Ruby at his desk. It's not hard to see where Ruby Sparks is headed, especially when Calvin and Ruby attend the party of one of Calvin's literary rivals (Steve Coogan). Paul Dano gives a performance of finely articulated confusion as Calvin; it's clear that Calvin will at some point mishandle the gift he has been given, but Dano makes us believe that Calvin wants to be a better man and is capable of change. There are lessons learned and a hat tip from the universe for Calvin in the end of course, after the change has occurred. What prevents Ruby Sparks from being more than a charming trifle is Zoe Kazan, who locates a specific moodiness in Ruby that gives her fate some gravity. It isn't a movie about movies on its face, but Ruby Sparks starts a conversation around the kind of stories we tell about relationships on film. I don't want to undersell how entertaining it is, but Ruby Sparks is an honest and original effort to level the romantic comedy playing field.

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