Calvin (Paul Dano) was a successful writer when he was a teenager. Since then, he has struggled to follow up his first novel, but that all changes when he dreams of, then writes about a character called Ruby Sparks, who he somehow wills to life.
There are some films that come along and genuinely surprise you. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one, Little Miss Sunshine is another, and Ruby Sparks falls into this category as well. How many times have you not wanted a book to end, so enamoured were you with the lead character? Well this is pretty much what happens with Ruby Sparks, although things take a dark turn as Calvin realises that he can in fact control his girlfriend.
Paul Dano has proven in the past that he is more than able of taking on the big players on screen, but with Ruby Sparks, Dano proves that he is capable of carrying a romantic, tragic movie. At first audience sympathy lies with Calvin; he is isolated and troubled and incapable of living up to his former success. His first interactions with Ruby are so genuine and sweet that it is easy to identify with him. The amazing thing about Dano’s performance, however, is that the audience is also able to identify with him when things take a turn for the dark and misogynistic. It is easy to see why Calvin makes the choices that he does, but it is not easy to forgive him for them. Dano is both endearing and repulsive, a fascinating combination.
Writer Zoe Kazan takes the title role, and while it obvious that she wrote the role for herself, this does not mean that she is incapable of playing it. Far from it. Kazan makes Ruby likeable and vulnerable, but the trick is that the audience knows something that she doesn’t; that she is fictional. It is this that has the audience rooting for Ruby in the end and what makes her such an interesting character. As well as the leads, the cast comprises of Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening and Steve Coogan who all shine as their selfish yet warm characters.
It would have been easy for Ruby Sparks to become a romantic film about finding love in the most unusual places, and advocate losing yourself in a good book, but the film is smarter than that. Instead, writer Kazan has explored the depths of love and obsession through the fact that Calvin can control Ruby if he wants to. When first they meet Calvin vows that he will never write about her again, but when she starts behaving in a way he doesn’t like, it is not long before he sits down at the typewriter to write the wrongs of his girlfriend. It is this misogyny, obsession (call it what you will) that suddenly makes Calvin a real character, and gives Ruby the chance to move away from her creator. Clever Ms Kazan, very clever.
Directors Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – arguably best known for Little Miss Sunshine – direct Ruby Sparks with the same light touch they used on their previous film. Emotional issues are given pride of place on screen, but only once they have been tunnelled towards and excavated from the characters. Audiences may leave the cinema with a feeling of sweetness, and Ruby Sparks is an endearing film, but it also a dark and twisted exploration of the relationships we form with other people. If there were to be complaints, they would be that the pacing is a little off and some of the montages feel a little forced, but these are minor complaints.
Ruby Sparks is a clever, inventive and thought provoking film that is equally funny and disturbing. Zoe Kazan is definitely one to watch, both as a writer and an actress, and the world that she has created is honest, beautiful, hideous and touching.