To start with, I want you to watch this trailer. Now watch it again. And again. And again. And again. You think you’ve seen it enough? No, you haven’t. Watch it again. Don’t wait to see where I’m going with this, just watch it again. And again. And again. And again.
Keep in mind, I’m not suggesting that you watch the trailer repeatedly because it’s that good. I’m asking you to watch the trailer repeatedly so you know how I feel about the movie at this point in time before sitting down to watch it.
Ever since that trailer debuted last April, the Fox Tower has shown that exact same trailer before every film it screens. Every. Single. One. And since the Fox Tower is one of my regular haunts, I must have seen it play several dozen times at least. It feels like I’ve been watching the trailer on endless repeat for the last four goddamn months. Mercifully, Ruby Sparks has finally premiered, and the time has come at last to see just what the hell Fox Searchlight has been so eagerly selling.
From what I can gather, the film itself began with Zoe Kazan, daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, and granddaughter of the great Elia Kazan. She wrote the screenplay for this movie, specifically tailoring the two lead characters for herself and Paul Dano. The two of them have been dating off-camera for some time, you see, ever since they played spouses in Meek’s Cutoff (*spits on the ground*). After that, I assume Dano recruited his old Little Miss Sunshine directors, the husband/wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and the whole thing snowballed from there.
On paper, this has all the makings of a vanity project. In execution, the film is a quirky, heartfelt romantic dramedy about relationships. As such, it should go without saying that the film lives and dies on the strength of its core relationship. With that in mind, casting the two leads with a real-life couple already gives the movie a leg up in terms of chemistry. Moreover, the various themes of romance gain another layer with the knowledge that this movie was directed by a happily-married working couple of twenty years. Throw in the existing friendship between the stars, directors, and writers, and it’s obvious that everyone’s having a great time on set.
Anyway, let’s start from the beginning. Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a high school dropout who somehow managed to write a literary classic at the age of 19. In the ten years since, Calvin has churned out a few short stories and novellas, but he’s been trying and failing to recapture that old lightning in a bottle. Calvin wrote a universally-adored book all those years ago and everyone expects him to write another one, despite the very real possibility that he may not have another great novel in him.
I should also add that Calvin is still reeling from a rather nasty breakup. His girlfriend of five years (the only long-term relationship he’s ever been in, I might add) left him almost immediately after Calvin’s dad died. So, as if he doesn’t have enough to deal with already, Calvin has to deal with family issues and pressure to get back in the dating game. Did I mention that Calvin is seeing a shrink (Dr. Rosenthal, played by Elliot Gould)?
Luckily, after so much writer’s block, Calvin finally finds a muse. He gets recurring dreams of a beautiful young red-headed girl played by Zoe Kazan. Calvin frantically writes about their nightly conversations, giving her a name and a highly detailed backstory in the process. He’s effectively building his dream girlfriend out of paper and ink. It’s blatant self-insertion fiction, which is a little embarrassing by Calvin’s own admission, but at least he’s writing again.
But then, for some magical reason that is never explained, Ruby Sparks herself appears in Calvin’s apartment. She’s Calvin’s live-in girlfriend, acting like absolutely nothing is out of the ordinary. And unbeknownst to her, she is completely at the mercy of Calvin and his typewriter.
Yes, Calvin is apparently the last person in the entire world to use a typewriter. Why on earth would such a prominent writer in 2012 eschew a word processor? I’m guessing the reason is more thematic than practical. After all, a word processor doesn’t instantly make words tangible the way a typewriter does. This may also explain why a typewriter was used in Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 film with a similar premise.
Getting back to Ruby, this is what she looks like in the movie. It’s worth noting that she’s very pretty (as is Zoe Kazan, for that matter), but she’s far from supermodel material. Calvin could easily equip her with bigger tits or whatever, as most guys would undoubtedly do in such a situation, but he never does. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world as far as Calvin is concerned, and that’s the important thing. She’s Calvin’s dream girl in every way, and their relationship is absolutely perfect. At first.
Initially, Calvin refuses to write a single thing about Ruby, precisely because he doesn’t want her to change. He wants the relationship to stay just as it is, absolutely perfect, forever. The problem is, that isn’t how life works. The world keeps turning. People change and people grow.
The instant that Ruby left Calvin’s head, she stopped being a two-dimensional character on a page. She became a flesh-and-blood person, with all the emotions, desires, imperfections, and free will that come with being human. Calvin keeps trying to control that, struggling to maintain the status quo. He also tries hard to keep Ruby away from the outside world, partly because of how emotionally needy he is and partly because explaining Ruby’s existence could get very awkward very quickly.
Calvin does eventually break out the typewriter and start attempting to improve Ruby’s demeanor, learning too late he’s only fixing something that was never broken. The typewriter also gets involved when Calvin and Ruby start fighting with each other, leading to a scene that’s heartbreaking in a very creative way.
It should go without saying that Ruby is an extremely dynamic character, whose personality is prone to change depending on Calvin’s whims. Kazan plays these mood swings in a way that perfectly toes the line between comedy and drama. We can laugh at how silly Ruby is acting, but there’s always an underlying sorrow for this girl whose free will is being tampered with. Conversely, Calvin goes through most of the film as a quiet, withdrawn, insecure, highly intelligent young man, which puts him squarely in Paul Dano’s wheelhouse. Together, Ruby’s unpredictable nature contrasts with Calvin’s stubbornly unchanging worldview in a very satisfying way. Also, it bears repeating, Zoe Kazan’s relationship with Paul Dano really pays off here. The Calvin/Ruby interplay feels far more authentic for it, and these two were highly talented actors to begin with.
The cast also features Chris Messina, here playing Calvin’s brother. Harry has a stable job, though I don’t think we ever learn what it is exactly. He also has a wife (Susie, played by Toni Trucks), and a young son. In spite of that, Harry is still a womanizer with a massive sex drive, and he’s obnoxiously vain to boot. In short, he’s Calvin’s polar opposite. Harry exists to provide a more grounded viewpoint on the narrative, and to give Calvin some much-needed advice about women. His advice sounds ridiculous at first, coming from someone as constantly horny and full of himself as Harry is. But as time goes on, we (and Calvin) learn that Harry really does know what he’s talking about. He may not be as articulate or as smart as Calvin is, but he does care for little brother and he knows exactly how much work goes into maintaining a healthy relationship.
Annette Bening also makes a brief appearance as Calvin’s eccentric mother. She lives in an enormous and beautiful house, with a huge garden of “medicinal” plants. Basically, Gertrude is what a hippy might be like if given a huge fortune to play with. But what really makes the character interesting is Calvin’s observation that she wasn’t always like this. Before she became a widow, Gertrude was very straight-laced and actually cooked meat. It wasn’t until she married Mort (played by none other than Antonio Banderas in a surprisingly funny bit part) when she became like this. It’s an interesting statement about how our significant others affect us, which is a huge theme that Calvin grapples with throughout the film.
The tertiary cast also includes Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, and Deborah Ann Woll, each of whom appears just long enough to keep the plot moving forward. They all turn in solid work for what little they’re given, though. Special kudos are due to Elliot Gould, who plays Calvin’s psychiatrist with a perfect mix of humor and empathy. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Alia Shawkat. She plays some barely-legal ditz who loved Calvin’s last book and can’t wait to bone him. As great as it is to see Shawkat get more work, she was totally wrong for the role. Fortunately, since she only gets two scenes, Shawkat is gone before the character can outstay her welcome.
Where the movie really has problems is in the second act. When Calvin has finally wrapped his head around Ruby’s existence and settles into a relationship with her, the film starts to lose steam. Calvin does start playing with his typewriter again by the start of the third act, but in the half-hour or so before that point, Calvin is seriously the least interesting character onscreen. To be fair, I’ll grant that Calvin’s growing disillusionment with Ruby is crucial to the narrative, but it isn’t as fun or interesting to watch as what came before or what happens after.
Though it lags in the middle, Ruby Sparks was much better than I thought it would be. The premise is executed in some very creative ways, and the cast is wonderful throughout. Special props are due to Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, who make a very lovely couple and a strong pair of lead characters. I must also give credit to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who keep the proceedings light and quirky without becoming annoying or losing track of the character drama.
All told, I think this would make a great double feature with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another quirky film with a fantastic concept that deals with the various highs and lows of a relationship. If you liked that film (and honestly, who doesn’t?), check this one out.