Thursday, March 14, 2013

Off-Beat "Ruby Sparks" Transcends Genre

Real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan produce and star in
Ruby Sparks, which Kazan also wrote.
Ruby Sparks is a wonderfully complex and off-beat film that plays like a Charlie Kaufmanesque take on the Pygmalion myth. For a more modern entry point for the film, think Stranger Than Fiction, except darker and far less overtly commercial.

Cleverly scripted by actress Zoe Kazan, the film focuses on Calvin (Paul Dano), an antisocial novelist who writes a treatment for his dream girl Ruby Sparks (Kazan), only to later discover she’s become real. Others can see her and interact with her, and, besides Calvin’s brother Harry (subtle scene-stealer Chris Messina), no one, not even Ruby, knows she’s been manifested by Calvin’s mind.

The marketing for the film plays up the quirky romantic elements inherent in such a premise, while highlighting its connection to the crowd-pleasing Little Miss Sunshine (in addition to sharing Dano, both films were directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris). That’s all well and good, but the simplistic approach greatly misrepresents the film.
Chris Messina (right) brings a grounding presence to
the film as Calvin's brother Harry. 

Sure, Ruby Sparks starts out as an indie charmer, and it’s often reminiscent of bittersweet romantic comedies along the lines of (500) Days of Summer. But, there’s also a whole lot more going on here than one would first expect, and the film takes off in some unexpected directions that simultaneously call to mind works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Frankenstein and Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Upon learning about Ruby, Harry astutely notes Calvin can tweak her in any way he wants. Calvin scoffs at the idea, saying he knows and loves everything about her, which makes sense since she’s his female ideal. However, when Ruby starts to flesh out and develop beyond the introverted Calvin’s comfort zone, the temptation for editing proves too great to ignore.

Ruby Sparks winds up making serious statements about the creative process and the way men idealize women. In doing the latter, it offers a critique of the much-discussed Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a stock construct Ruby initially seems to epitomize. But, as Harry tells Calvin, "quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real" and "you haven't written a person, okay? You've written a girl."

Kazan is good all the way through, but gets a true showcase once Ruby starts to become her own person and Calvin begins rewriting. She runs the gamut of emotions in this thing, as Ruby oscillates from personality type to personality type culminating in a tour-de-force climax that's shocking in how far it journeys into darkness. 
Antonio Banderas must love dogs.

For his part, Dano is quite impressive. Although he can be overly mannered at times, he’s also an all-in performer who can excel in the right part. Real-life girlfriend Kazan gifts him a great one here. Calvin’s a complicated guy with a lot of issues, reminiscent of a modern-day Barton Fink in the way he’s equal parts timid introvert and smug egotist. And Dano bravely digs in here, matching his career-best turn in There Will Be Blood and simultaneously making Calvin both sympathetic and detestable.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Elliot Gould, and Steve Coogan offering great character moments from the sidelines. Banderas is particularly enjoyable as the hippy boyfriend of Calvin’s mom (Bening).

The film barely blipped on the radar when it first came out, but it’s a great achievement for all involved, particularly Kazan. The granddaughter of legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan, she does her family name proud by delivering a rich performance and emerging as a screenwriter with a strong voice and a real sense of character.

Not everything about the film is perfect. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending, partly because I thought it would be stronger if Calvin and Ruby had moved on and partly because it made me wonder too much about how he would explain this craziness to everyone else in his life who’ve already met Ruby. However, it’s not a make or break thing, and ultimately, when a film is this smart, emotionally affecting and thought-provoking, something like that seems like a mere quibble. A