Tuesday Night Movie: Ruby Sparks

Our reviewer is enchanted by the charms of star/screenwriter Zoe Kazan in this magic-realist rom-com, also starring indie stalwart Paul Dano.

Imaginary friends with benefits: Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano


It’s all right if you’ve never really heard of Zoe Kazan before. Perhaps you’re a movie buff, and you’ve heard of the great Elia Kazan, director of such Hollywood classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden and Splendor in the Grass, so maybe you figured she might be somehow related. Well, Zoe Kazan is Elia Kazan’s granddaughter, and she is following in her grandpa’s footsteps. At 28, she has built a career of small but memorable parts in a wide variety of films such as It’s Complicated, Revolutionary Road, Meek’s Cutoff, and the HBO series Bored to Death. And this year she has written the freshest, most whimsical movie to come out in 2012 so far.

Ruby Sparks tells the story of Calvin (an excellent Paul Dano), a reclusive, beat-down writer, who wrote one of the greatest American novels while he was still in high school but hasn’t had much success since. Living off of his first novel in a sterile white mansion with Scotty, a small puppy “who pees like a girl,” Calvin spends all his time dwelling upon his writer’s block. When he starts having dreams about a pretty girl he thinks would fall in love with him, he makes her the main character of his next novel.

Rejuvenated by his muse, he begins to conjure up her life and the romantic relationship his hero has with this mysterious insecure artist from Dayton, Ohio, named Ruby Sparks (a terrific Kazan). He gets so caught up in writing that when one morning he is greeted by Ruby herself, Calvin thinks he is losing his mind. Ruby is there, in the flesh; she is real and not a fragment of his imagination, and yet she is his creation.  He made her up and there she is — literally everything he wants her to be.

Directed by the husband-and-wife directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Ruby Sparks is the most thought-provoking film to come out this year. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Stranger than Fiction meets Pygmalion. Zoe Kazan has written a real writer’s script; even though the idea of someone writing our fate for us has been recycled time and time again, there is always room for fresh interpretation of one of life’s most grandiose themes: how does love find us?

Is it a figment of our imagination, this perfect someone whom we are supposed to end up with, or is it all perfectly calculated by the universe? And how much of them is ours exactly? Is there freedom in a relationship? All of these questions are hinted at in the movie; there is enough symbolism for an entire thesis, but most importantly, Ruby Sparks stands out with a terrific script, which should get many Best Original Screenplay nudges.

The chemistry between Dano and Kazan is sparkling, and the two bounce dialogue off each other with such ease it’s as if they’d played together all their lives (both had parts in Meek’s Cutoff). As the clueless, insecure and sweet Ruby, Kazan is a force of nature. Look out for the scene when Calvin finally shows her just how much he can control her behaviour. Similarly, Dano’s John Lennon looks and real ability to pull off a grandpa sweater really add up to the image of a brooding writer who cannot find satisfaction in life unless he has control over it. Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Celeste and Jesse Forever) co-stars as Calvin’s brother, and Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas give cheeky performances as their born-again hippie mom, and her carpenter lover.

Ruby Sparks is this year’s The Kids are Alright, an underdog comedy with lots of brains and a huge heart. Don’t miss it. ■

Ruby Sparks is currently in theatres.

Radina Papukchieva blogs at The Café Phenomenon. @Papukchieva on Twitter.

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