Film Review – Ruby Sparks
It has been six years since Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris burst onto the film scene after directing the breakout hit Little Miss Sunshine. It was a little indie film that became a surprise hit and charmed people worldwide. I know I have been very eager to see what they would do next, and finally they have quietly resurfaced with their latest project, Ruby Sparks.
The story follows Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a struggling writer attempting to follow up his acclaimed novel, which won him lots of fame and critical notoriety. He is almost agoraphobic and receives an assignment from his therapist to write about a positive encounter with a girl. Soon he discovers not only is that girl, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), alive, but he can control her with his typewriter.
The concept of trying to quantify perfection isn’t without precedent; it reminds me of movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mannequin and Cool World (and when I asked people for suggestions on this theme, I got so many that I feel compelled to put a list of their responses at the bottom of this review). These stories are engaging because they teach us about being human—that we are not just the sum of our parts, that there are indefinable elements that can never be captured or replicated, whether you call it the soul or whatever. Ruby Sparks doesn’t really re-invent this genre, but its execution of it is solid enough to make it enjoyable.
We need to be clear; Ruby Sparks is a very different film from Little Miss Sunshine. While both of them are dramas, Little Miss Sunshine started out with a very dark premise and became positive and upbeat. Ruby Sparks is almost the opposite; it starts out fairly light but becomes more grim as it goes on. Given people’s affection for the cuteness of Little Miss Sunshine, this is a warning that this isn’t more of the same. It is exciting to see Dayton & Faris trying new and different things, as I frequently criticize other directors, like Wes Anderson, for example, for playing it too safe. That isn’t to say Ruby Sparks is better than Moonrise Kingdom, just that it is more risky.
I don’t know what it is about Paul Dano, but I love him as an actor. He has a similar quirky nature to Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg, but with more versatility and a willingness to try new things. Also, there is an empathetic quality to him that makes him relatable no matter the absurdity of the situation. Clearly he has a solid rapport with Dayton & Faris, as they seem able to maximize his talent. Despite some bizarre elements, in particular his relationship with his therapist (Elliott Gould), I found his character endearing. Opposite him, Zoe Kazan pulls double duty on the project, not just as the fictitious creation come to life, but also as the screenwriter of the film. Her work on the script I found to be impressive, but her acting was a little mixed. The chemistry between her and Dano is solid, but her character is a bit flat for a good chunk of the film.
The scene stealer is Chris Messina as Calvin’s brother, Harry. He is the only other one aware of Ruby’s true story, and that knowledge provides for some very funny moments. He is sort of like Randal from Clerks; he provides a similar element of comedic relief. In addition to that, he’s also part of many of the core points of the movie, such as the discussions of how people are more complex than the sum of their parts and the question of the morality in Calvin’s ability to manipulate Ruby through his typewriter. Also much like Randal, though, his ignorance, rather than his intelligence, is usually the catalyst for the lesson.
Despite there being a lot of great pieces in this film, it doesn’t add up to perfection—it’s a bit like a box filled with the pieces from two different puzzles, but without a complete set from either. A lot of the supporting characters don’t really feel like they add much, particularly Calvin’s mom (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas). Perhaps they add a bit of comedy to the story, but they don’t really move the plot along that much. But it speaks to the appeal that Dayton & Faris have for actors that so many major actors just want to be in their movie, regardless of the size of their parts.
Ruby Sparks isn’t going to create waves the way Little Miss Sunshine did, but it shows once again that Dayton & Faris are talented directors. Even though they aren’t able to capture that lightning in a bottle again, they tell an engaging story with some great performances. I am excited to see what they do next—I just hope it doesn’t take another six years to see it.
Final Grade: B
Other film suggestions from people included: Weird Science, Toy Story, Stranger Than Fiction, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Frankenstein, Pinocchio, Last Action Hero, Tron Legacy, Enchanted, Project X, The NeverEnding Story, The Dark Half, Indian in the Cupboard, Night at the Museum, Pleasantville, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Harvey, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and New Nightmare.