Release Date: 12th October 2012
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliot Gould
Husband and wife directorial team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have waited six years to follow-up their successful, charming Little Miss Sunshine with Ruby Sparks, a fascinating romantic comedy from the pen of co-star Zoe Kazan. With Kazan’s partner Paul Dano taking the male lead, one could be forgiven for assuming the picture a terribly cosy, coupley twee-fest; yet another ‘manic pixie dream girl’ fantasy of little consequence and plenty nausea. However, writer, directors and stars have crafted something a good deal more interesting – a smartly drawn, acerbic deconstruction of the aforementioned trope and critique of the films which house it.
Dano essays Calvin, an introverted loser whose days as something of a literary prodigy appear numbered as the glow from his first novel fades and the ink for his long-awaited second dries up. At the behest of analyst Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould), Calvin attempts to author anything at all by way of combating his crippling writer’s block. “I’d like it to be very bad,” says the shrink – as telling a line as there is in the film. Calvin’s creative juices are invigorated by the invention of an idealised lover, the titular Miss Sparks, and the prose spews forth; the problems begin with the scribe’s realisation he’s actually falling in love with his character… and her magically appearing in his kitchen one day, fully formed in the shape of Kazan.
Essentially the bastard child of Synecdoche, New York and Weird Science in terms of narrative, the joys of Ruby Sparks are to be found in the cynicism and wit of the writing, and deftness of performance. Ruby herself is the ultimate doe-eyed, hipster fetish; all quirks and charm and total devotion to her über-geek master and, with Calvin continuously able to alter her behaviour and moods simply by writing it, smart parallels are drawn between this manipulation and that with which various male screenwriters have constructed their own perfect women for throwaway pap down the years; as soon as Ruby starts to exhibit any hints of developing a character of her own, Calvin is straight to the typewriter to erase those emotions and supplant them with some more attuned to his creepy needs. The male fear of rounded, flawed, real woman is to the fore.
Both Dano and Kazan are excellent in their roles. The former, seemingly hell-bent on exclusively playing arseholes until the end of time, is a suitably twitchy mess of neurosis and God-complex, whilst the latter finds real pathos in her portrayal of a character initially, and quite deliberately, as clichéd as there could ever be. Gould, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas and, in particular, the superb Chris Messina are correspondingly delightful; Benning and Banderas also providing insight into Calvin’s assorted personality disorders with their riotous portrayal of his new-age, bullshit artist mother and stepfather.
A sharp, tight and very funny piece about writing, gender politics, film and relationships, Ruby Sparks is a multi-layered rom-com with a profundity scarcely seen in the genre. It’ll make you laugh, make you wince, and certainly make you think twice about watching that Zooey Deschanel flick just starting on the other side…