Monday, September 17, 2012

Ruby Sparks

For F*** Magazine, Singapore

Movie Review                                                                                                             12/9/12


Starring: Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Chris Messina
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

            All writers know that there’s nothing quite as intimidating as a blank page – this reviewer is faced with one right now. Even the most prolific of writers can get bad cases of writer’s block induced by nothing more than a little white space, and prodigious young novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) is no exception. At the age of 19, he shot to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list and captured the imagination of the public, but has had a hard time matching his success in the intervening ten years. His therapist Dr Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) gives him a simple writing assignment to get him going.

            That night, Calvin has a dream in which a beautiful, quirky young woman named Ruby (Kazan) approaches him in the park while he’s walking his dog, and offers to do a drawing of Calvin’s pet pooch. Inspired, he awakes the next morning and writes away. Gradually and inexplicably, personal effects of some non-existent woman pop up in his house, as discovered by Calvin’s concerned brother Harry (Messina) and Harry’s wife Susie (Toni Trucks). Then, the utterly impossible happens – Ruby, the woman who had hitherto only been a product of Calvin’s imagination, materializes before him. Calvin has to come to grips with this absurd turn of events, questioning his sanity and making his brother even more worried, when he realises that whatever he types on his page, Ruby will manifest. In other words (heh), Calvin now has the perfect girlfriend all to himself – but the situation may not be as ideal as he’s imagined once reality sets in. 

            This fantasy romantic comedy-drama is helmed by the same directing duo famous for Little Miss Sunshine, so one can get a rough idea as to the offbeat, gently humourous and quirkily intelligent tone. Ruby Sparks was written by Ruby herself, Zoe Kazan, and boy did she do an amazing job as both scribe and leading lady. Directors Dayton and Faris have helped Kazan handcraft a true masterpiece, a film that completely took this reviewer by surprise in how profound and moving it ended up being. On the surface, this looks like a fun little flick with a fantastical premise, sort of Stranger than Fiction meets Pygmalion. There are indeed laughs aplenty to be derived from Calvin’s extremely peculiar predicament, and from how Ruby can be bent to his will at a mere keystroke.

            However, beneath that bubbly surface lies Kazan’s eloquent meditation on the process of writing, the process of falling in love, how the two intersect, and the moral and ethical implications of having complete control over one’s partner. The film expertly eases the audience from the lighter stuff into the psychological drama, and there is a truly intense confrontation at the film’s climax that one completely would not expect, yet it does not feel out of place in the slightest. As an aspiring writer and a hopeless romantic, the film struck this reviewer to the core, its observations ringing clear as a bell in spite (or perhaps because of) its outlandish jumping-off point. Even with the element of fantasy, this film never resorts to caricatures or broad strokes; even Calvin’s hippie mother and her new boyfriend (played by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas respectively, enjoyable in their small roles) aren’t made out to be like Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman’s similarly-characterised roles in Meet the Fockers. There’s a deftness, an elegance to the way the whole thing is handled, one example being a seemingly throwaway gag involving Ruby speaking French, which gets an impactful payoff at the end. All this may come off as pretentiously hipster to some, but is actually very refreshing amidst the sea of production-line, puerile comedies Hollywood seems to be churning out like butter these days, and not once does the film feel smug.

            Paul Dano, a Little Miss Sunshine alum, has yet to truly hit the big time – but judging from his performance as Calvin, he definitely deserves to. He is believable and likable to a fault as the awkward writer, and he never overplays Calvin’s ineptness as actors tasked with playing characters of this sort often do. When Calvin’s darker side creeps to the surface during the afore-mentioned climactic confrontation, Dano is absolutely riveting in that display of acting range. Kazan actually bests him a tad, probably because she wrote the part of Ruby for herself to play. They have incredible chemistry, likely a result of the actors’ real life romantic involvement with each other. Ruby is essentially a deconstruction of that ever-present “manic pixie dream girl” trope, embodied by such actresses as Zooey Deschanel and Krysten Ritter. Ruby can be all doe-eyed and kooky, but can switch personality traits at the drop of a hat, thanks to Calvin’s control over her. It’s engrossing to watch Kazan play the puppet of sorts, a woman unaware that she is actually nothing more than a figment of her boyfriend’s imagination come to life – and even more interesting to see Ruby assert her own identity when push comes to shove.

            Ruby Sparks is, to put it plainly, one of the very best romantic comedies this reviewer has ever seen. It almost defiantly breaks free of the mould of gratingly commercial ‘chick flicks’, instead serving up some rather deep ideas cloaked in a ‘what if?’ comedy, it’s artfully-lensed and brought to vivid life by its very capable leads. Just as Ruby leaps off the page and into Calvin’s life, so this film will very likely leap off the screen and into the hearts of many a viewer.

SUMMARY: An intriguing premise, skillfully-written screenplay, intelligent direction, compelling performances and unexpectedly thought-provoking philosophical undertones turn this Spark into a brightly-glowing flame.


Jedd Jong



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