I wasn’t sure what I thought when I left Ruby Sparks. I was initially taken aback by the fact that it was both written by and stars Zoe Kazan (Me & Orson Welles), not to mention co-directed by a woman, Valerie Faris, alongside Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine). What exactly was Kazan trying to say about women? Do they all subconsciously want to be manipulated by men? What was she trying to say about men? Do they really only want a woman that they can mould into the perfect being? What exactly was Kazan trying to say about herself? Does she really consider herself the perfect fantasy that any man would conjure up if forced?
Ruby is a girl who suddenly appears in the life of writing prodigy Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood), the author of a much-respected novel that has never been followed up. Ruby is actually a character from his latest piece of writing, a completely invented construct that nobody, not Calvin nor his giddy brother (Chris Messina, Julie & Julia), can explain. Anything he types, she does. Speak French? Sure thing. Get sad at his leaving? Yup. It’s a dangerous line Calvin begins to walk, tempted to never write again as a result of messing up anything of his creation.
It took me a while to decide that Ruby Sparks is surely Kazan’s rebuke to the (one presumes) deluge of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” characters she gets asked to audition for. She has essentially written herself in the most (Zooey) Deschanel-esque way possible, complete with cutesy mixy-matchy fashion ensembles, frenzied flamboyance and enough quirky problems for Calvin to fix and, in the process, make himself a better man. It would be all too diabolically la-di-da – especially given that Dano’s novelist works on a retro typewriter (!!!) and has a hippie mother (Annette Bening) and step-father (Antonio Banderas) – if it weren’t littered with moments of genuine pathos. Kazan clearly wrote the film’s second half as her own cathartic piece of performance art as she fluctuates wildly from one personality type to another, before screaming and crying about free will.
The film is ultimately not quite as successful as Little Miss Sunshine, and its prickly take on women’s image could help explain some of its harsher critics. While the ending certainly falls prey to the sort of things the rest of the movie is subverting, it throws enough curveballs into the typical Hollywood romcom formula to feel fresh. In the realm of fantasy romances, Ruby Sparks is certainly leaps ahead of the likes of Mannequin, Chances Are and their ilk. Some audiences may note echoes of Stranger Than Fiction, but this one at least adheres to its own skewed logic. It’s not all sparkle, but it is polished and shiny enough to satisfy a curious niche audience. The biggest question of all is what Hollywood will think of Kazan, a woman who appears to not be willing to fit into her assigned box.
Ruby Sparks is released on September 20th
Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Toni Trucks, Elliot Gould and Steve Coogan