© 2012 Ray Wong
Movies about writers usually come in a few flavors: love-sick writers (Neverland), crazy writers (Secret Window), or geniuses (Wonder Boys). The protagonist of Ruby Sparks happens to be all of the above.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a boy wonder, having written a best-selling masterpiece at age 19. He is also haunted and stuck with his early success, not being able to write anything that matches his debut in 10 years. Now 29, creatively blocked and living on his loyalties and occasional speaking engagements, Calvin is a recluse. He's also ended a tumultuous 5-year relationship with fellow writer Lila (Deborah Ann Woll) and is emotionally unavailable. He's trying to sort out his life with the help of psychologist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould).
Things start to change when Calvin dreams about a perfect woman named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Inspired by his dreams, Calvin begins to write about Ruby, and realizes that he's falling in love with his protagonist. His brother Harry (Chris Messina), however, chastises him for being unrealistic, even in his fictional world, for a perfect woman like Ruby doesn't exist. Soon, however, Ruby shows up at Calvin's apartment and insists that they're in a relationship. Calvin believes he has finally lost his mind.
When he realizes Ruby is real (other people can see her, too), he becomes ecstatic and baffled. Not only has he created a real person out of pure imagination -- it is magic; that's the only explanation Calvin can give -- she is everything he ever wanted. Smart, sweet, spunky, beautiful, emotionally available. However, as their relationship continues and deepens, problems begin to arise. When Calvin realizes Ruby is losing interest and may leave him, he become desperate. That is, until he realizes he can make Ruby do anything he wants, because he created her!
Paul Dano (Being Flynn) is perfect as Calvin, a pale, scrawny, young but reclusive boy-genius writer. Physically Dano embodies the character wonderfully, but there's so much more to Dano's performance that brings the character to life. He's absolutely convincing as a complicated, genius writer who still prefers to write on a typewriter. Dano has a penchant for playing unconventional, quirky, deeply flawed and complicated characters, and he's struck gold again with Calvin.
Zoe Kazan (It's Complicated), who also wrote the screenplay, is not quite the normal "dream girl." While cute, she is not gorgeous. She's smart, but not a genius. She's affectionate, but not clingy. In another word, she's everything that Calvin would want because she is not threatening and she adores him. Kazan portrays the character with an earnestness that defies the conventional idea of what a "dream girl" should be -- she is absolutely what Calvin Weir-Fields would consider a dream girl.
The supporting cast is rather good, too. Chris Messina (Like Crazy), who plays Calvin's happily married brother, is the complete opposite of Dano. It takes a little time to get used to the idea that he is playing Dano's brother, not best friend, but once we accept that fact, their chemistry leaps off the screen. It works. Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) is wonderful, as usual, as Calvin's mother. Antonio Banderas (Haywire) has a small role as Bening's live-in lover. Steve Coogan (Darkwood Manor) is superbly smarmy as Calvin's agent, and Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) has a brief but intense role as Calvin's ex Lila.
Zoe Kazan's given us a whimsical yet dark fantasy, as well as a witty romantic comedy and a disturbing love story. As a writer, Kazan understands the craziness that happens inside a writer's mind, and the god complex as the sole creator of worlds and characters that become "real." What is interesting is that Kazan also has a keen observation about the matter of love. One of the themes is "what is reality?" From Harry's point of view, Ruby isn't real, even though she appears in as flesh and blood. To Calvin, she is, but in reality, Ruby is total fabricated version of a woman, not a real person. Kazan explores that theme but does not answer it directly.
There are many interesting and humorous moments that warrant a chuckle or two, but as a comedy, the material never quite lifts off. Then the story takes a dark and serious turn, and the movie feels like a different one. The tone is uneven. That's why "dramedies" are difficult to do well -- it's all about the delicate balance between humor and seriousness. Ruby Sparks isn't funny enough as a comedy -- it's whimsical, all right -- but gets a bit too moody and serious for the lighthearted audience.
Maybe the reason is that there are two directors at the helm? Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) have done a good job with this project, but their co-direction falls a bit short of their past efforts. The pacing seems off at times. Again, the tone is uneven, but I blame that on the screenplay and not the direction.
Ruby Sparks is an interesting mix of drama, comedy and fantasy. It reminds me of another writer-related fantasy, Stranger than Fiction, in which a writer's character discovers that he's only a figment of someone's imagination. In a way, Ruby Sparks is more focused and less fanciful. And that may be the reason why it lacks just enough sparks to make it a true gem.
Stars: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Zoe Kazan
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual references and some drug use
Running Time: 104 minutes
Script - 8
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7
Total - 7.3 out of 10.0