Film Review: Ruby Sparks
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Harris
Production Studio: Bona Fide Productions
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Chris Messina
“A novelist struggling with writer’s block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.”
I have never been a fan of romantic comedies for reasons that go beyond my gender. Firstly I have never really had the chance to take someone special to see such a film and secondly, more importantly, I think that the genre has become its own ‘cookie cutter’. What I mean by that is that the storyline of your average romantic comedy has become so formulaic that any savvy audience member will be able to pre-empty the script by a good 20-30 minutes: You’re going to have a happy-go-lucky male-or-female lead who finds love in [fill in the blank] strange scenario, they’re going to get along great, then appear to break up only to get back-together just in time for the credits to roll so everyone leaves the screening happy. It beggars belief that hordes of women and their unfortunate boyfriends and husbands return in their droves to see what is essentially the same story rehashed and redone with a new glittery coat of paint. Worst still is the alarming notion that audiences have become so desensitized to the sub-par writing they have been spoon fed that they are no longer being trusted by directors of romantic comedies to even make up their own minds or be trust to come to their own conclusions. Try counting how many times you have seen a character have a completely uncharacteristic change of heart (Playing for Keeps) or how many times you’ve seen a convenient occurrence suddenly set everything ‘right’ (Twilight). There is a term for this… ‘Deus Ex Machina’, and it is a signifier of lazy writing. In the face of recent adversity within the genre every now and then a film comes along which not only defies it but inadvertently ends up critiquing it quite harshly, Ruby Sparks is one such film.
The story opens with an introduction to our main character Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a prominent young novelist who has hit an emotional slump which has further impacted his ability to write. Calvin, at the behest of his therapist, starts writing a short character profile about someone who likes his dog ‘Scotty’. Once his imagination gets rolling Calvin can do precious little else than keep writing about the girl that he now keeps dreaming about: Ruby ‘Tiffany’ Sparks (Zoe Kazan). One day, following an earnest one-to-one discussion with his brother Harry (Chris Messina), Calvin wakes to find Ruby making him breakfast in his kitchen. Thinking that he has gone insane Calvin runs out of the house only for Ruby, concerned at his eccentric behaviour, to follow him. Calvin then discovers that Ruby is not just a figment of his imagination as other people around him can see her as well. Overwhelmed with emotion and awe at not only finding his perfect girlfriend but with the miraculous nature of her very being Calvin apologizes for his brash behaviour and embarks on a relationship with Ruby. Soon enough Calvin decides to confide in his brother what has happened and introduces Ruby to Harry. Unsurprisingly Harry is suspicious and believes there must be some sort of logical explanation, but Calvin proves the supernatural nature of Ruby through the revelation that his writing directly affects Ruby’s behaviour and personality. Harry is stunned that his brother has manifested a woman with his mind let alone that he has the power to change her at a whim. Calvin says he is madly in love with Ruby and begs Harry not to tell anyone of her origin, even Ruby herself. He says he wrote her and therefore knows her better than anyone, and he will never consider changing her… Or will he?
The film’s plot really sounds like what would happen if Woody Allen decided to write “Weird Science”, it really does. The setup, fantastical as it is, remains firmly rooted in the realms of reality even more so than any other romantic comedy of recent times – an amazing achievement that this film deserves full credit for. Every character is thoroughly likeable whether it is the egotistical but good-natured older brother figure of Harry, the dotty and free spirited parental figures of Gertrude (Annette Bening) and Mort (Antonio Banderas), or the downright adorable Ruby Sparks herself. The story flows at a steady pace as we see the relationship between Calvin and Ruby flourish and then inevitably falter through Calvin’s struggle to manage his own personal demons. The film’s story is structured in an interesting manner as the first half of the film, which plays out like a quasi-male-fantasy, is dedicated to establishing the relationship between the two leads and showing the highs of not only being in love with one’s perfect partner but being able to maintain that illusion. However during the film’s second half this same fantasy is completely shattered as it delivers a very sombre message: “Honeymoon periods do not last… in relationships people try to be exactly what they think their partner wants… and there’s only so long you can keep that up for before one of you throws in the towel.”
If I go too far into the details of what unfolds I would end up spoiling a lot of the experience but suffice to say the conclusion the story reaches, whilst not remotely what audiences might have expected, is still satisfying. This is a film which lets it’s audience follow someone who thinks that he has his perfect girl… only to cave in and attempt to meld her to match his own disjointed personality with disastrous results. Better yet the film and it’s direction not only clearly trusts the intelligence of it’s audience, it makes them consider what they themselves could be doing to ruin their own relationships through learning from the drama played out on screen between these two great characters thanks to some fantastic writing.
A lot of people spend forever looking for the perfect person without ever considering whether or not they fit the same bill that they are aiming for, a lesson that this film delivers without ever being too overbearing. There really aren’t whole lot of negatives, with the possible exception of the ending which might leave certain members of the audience feeling rather surprised, that I can attribute to Ruby Sparks. It is a heart warming experience which occasionally delves into some pretty deep moral areas, the characters are likeable without becoming stereotypes and above all are believable, and the relationship which unfolds between Calvin and Ruby is genuinely moving – tricky to say that as a guy but it still is!
It is also worth keeping an eye on Zoe Kazan’s career from here on out for not only did she play the leading lady in the story but she literally wrote the story as well! I’m not making this up! Talk about multi-tasking! Wow!
However the greatest achievement Ruby Sparks pulls off is that it made me believe that romantic comedies and on-screen romance has hope for the future. Guys in particular should not be put off seeing this because of the ‘Romantic Comedy’ tag because it really defies what everyone has come to know and expect from other films of the sort. If you cannot see it with that special someone don’t feel awkward or even ashamed to see it by yourself as you could end up learning something about yourself from it.
Final Score: 9/10
+ Zoe Kazan is adorable as Ruby Sparks!
+ Paul Dano acts as an interesting avatar for the male members of the audience, a character who you hate to like if you would!
+ Supporting cast do their jobs amicably.
+ Fantastic writing which engages with it’s audience and respects their intelligence.
+ Weird but wonderful concept.
– Ending might be a bit of a downer for some.
– Never explains the supernatural element to the story, but that’s not meant to be the focus here and it is left to the audience to decide.