Saturday 1 October 2016

Movie Review: Ruby Sparks (2012)

A comic drama with plenty to say about the essence of romantic relationships, Ruby Sparks delves into the interface between idealized obsession and love, and goes looking for the ingredients required for successful couplehood.

Los Angeles-based writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is rich, alone, and suffering severe writer's block. At 19 Calvin was proclaimed a genius and was sitting on top of the best seller charts with his debut book. Now 10 years later, he may already be a has-been. His father recently died and his girlfriend walked out on him, and other than his dog Scottie, he mainly interacts with his brother Harry (Chris Messina) and psychiatrist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould).

Calvin starts to have vivid dream of an idealized girlfriend, and Rosenthal encourages him to write what he sees. Calvin gets a burst of creativity and creates the persona of Ruby Sparks on paper. He is then shocked when Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears as his real, in-the-flesh perfect live-in girlfriend, representing everything he had written. Better still, Calvin can fully define Ruby's personality and behaviour by adding sentences to his manuscript. After an initial ideal period of romance, he introduces her to Harry, his mother Gertrude (Annette Bening) and her artist boyfriend Mort (Antonio Banderas). But Calvin has a dour, self-obsessed personality, and Ruby starts to withdraw from him.

An independent production co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Kazan (Elia's granddaughter), Ruby Sparks is a clever story of attachment and the fundamental search for happiness. Disguised as a comedy, featuring plenty of laughs and a superficial resemblance to Stranger Than Fiction, Ruby Sparks is much more interested in mastering a stunning head fake as it steers in darker directions. Calvin's story is about the distinction between loving yourself and loving another, and once Kazan shines the spotlight on her real intentions, the film delivers a devastating, soul searching blow to any facile definitions of the perfect mate.

With its brave mix of humour and unsettling intensity, Ruby Sparks received a limited release and barely found an audience. On the surface this is a comedy about an ideal perky girlfriend coming to life, an adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy. But Kazan sprinkles the early scenes with hints of trouble ahead, the comedy laced with poison waiting to percolate. Calvin's abject loneliness is not conducive to functioning as a couple. A victim of too much too soon, he pushes away the label of genius but also hears it too often. In his visits to Dr. Rosenthal, he has to hold onto a toy bear. And his insistence on using an old fashioned typewriter is funny, but also smacks of illusions of grandeur.

Trouble starts when Ruby starts to drift away from Calvin, and he takes back to the typewriter to describe what he needs from her. In a stark demonstration of be careful what you wish for and the futile search for solutions through others to fundamental problems that reside within, Calvin cannot get it right. Whether he describes Ruby as fully attached to him or possessing an independent spirit, she can't deliver the fulfillment he craves. With the relationship on the rocks, a devastating encounter with Calvin's former girlfriend is a proverbial blow to his head.

The scene where Calvin is finally forced to confront his failings is emotionally devastating and almost agonizing to watch. The man with full control over another but no control over his narcissism has absolutely nothing to offer except the ability to deliver impassioned pain.

Paul Dano's screen persona of slightly worrisome intensity is perfectly suited to Calvin, and Dano creates a complex character, superficially nothing more than a little bit different, but churning through plenty of agony beneath the surface. Kazan has an equally difficult task and does not shy away from it. Ruby transitions from a perfect creation to a functioning woman influenced by Calvin's behaviour, and Kazan guides Ruby as she repeatedly chooses fundamental human free will anchored by the starting points set on Calvin's typewriter.

A courageously original take on the dynamics of romance, Ruby does create a blistering spark.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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