Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
September 2012

Ruby Sparks

Under his thumb

'Ruby Sparks' pleasantly, cleverly takes aim at a long history of literary men and their objects of desire

Ruby Sparks
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Screenplay: Zoe Kazan
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Steve Coogan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Toni Trucks and Elliott Gould
Rated R / 1 hour, 44 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Ruby Sparks operates within a difficult, narrow but often fruitful literary and cinematic tradition - stories about writers whose creations become very, very real. It is, as many have pointed out, somewhere in the same vein as Stranger Than Fiction, and both films have their predecessors in various other works of meta-fiction (At Swim-Two-Birds, anyone?).

But it also plays as both a continuation of and response to another tradition altogether. Consider the predominance of movies made by men, about male characters (often writers themselves, of course), and whose women are all seen through the eyes of those men. The struggling male writer (or other artist) is one of the more thoroughly romanticized protagonist archetypes - and generally speaking, his lady concerns are at the top of his list of problems. (Can you even remember the last time you saw that dynamic in reverse?)

Now here comes Ruby Sparks, a lightly surreal romantic comedy - written by and starring Zoe Kazan, co-directed by Valerie Faris (along with Jonathan Dayton) - that presents your standard Struggling Male Writer Who Can't Understand Women and plunks him into a satirical fable about female autonomy. Needless to say, the film speaks to the larger idea of male control over women (or ideas of women) - specifically, representations in popular media.

That description may make it sound clinical, but it's far from it; rather, it takes its premise to playfully absurd heights. It toys with its characters and needles them for the prototypes they are, while warmly bringing them down to earth at the same time. It makes for a pretty impressive juggling act at times - the characters are placed in a fantastical and ludicrous set of situations, but their behaviors are rooted in a deeply observant understanding of how people relate to one another.

The writer in this case is Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a 30-ish writer who's been struggling in his own shadow since his bestselling novel established him as a wunderkind at the tender age of 19. These days he can't churn out much of anything - certainly nothing that could live up to his now-lofty reputation. He is socially awkward, terrible with women, mired in therapy and still reeling from an old heartbreak. His apartment is usually empty, except for him and his dog, whom he doesn't seem to want around anyway.

Thanks to an assignment from his shrink (Elliott Gould), Calvin halfheartedly begins to write. It's about a girl. He calls her Ruby Sparks. He comes up with every detail of her life. He creates her, romanticizes her and, after writing a few chapters' worth, falls in love with her. Pity she isn't real.

Except she appears in his apartment one day - Ruby Sparks, in the flesh - and seems to be under the impression that she and Calvin are in a loving, healthy relationship. His first thought, naturally, is that he's insane. His brother Harry (Chris Messina) agrees. Until it turns out he can see Ruby, too. And so can everyone else. And just to prove to Harry (and, more importantly, himself) that this inexplicable miracle is real, he begins typing up new details about Ruby (Kazan) and seeing if they come true. Wouldn't you know it, they do. He writes that she speaks French, and Ruby speaks French. He writes her a change of personality, and boom, she's a whole new girl.

Not that he wants to change her. He doesn't.

Well, not at first, anyway. Where it begins to get most interesting is after the initial "honeymoon" phase of his new relationship, when he begins to discover (however hesitantly) that relationships (and women) are more complicated than whatever insight he put into his writing. And so Calvin decides to take a more proactive approach to the relationship.

I'm of many minds about the depiction of Calvin - at times the film seems to be taking the smart approach; at others it seems completely wrongheaded. As the film opens, Calvin is established as neurotic and insufferably whiny - but it's almost like someone tried to write a Woody Allen proxy but completely forgot the self-awareness and humor those characters always possess. And so Calvin ends up coming across as a whiny and humorless boor, and an immensely unlikable one at that.

But the way the character develops is interesting. Dayton and Faris allow Calvin to begin as the romantic lead and eventually become something of a bad guy, cruelly controlling Ruby in a way that renders her almost a non-person - a mere projection of his whims. This leads to the film's darkest and most daring scene, which I can't describe except to say that Calvin defiantly makes the most out of his peculiar situation.

Ruby Sparks steps wrong in a few places - the introduction of Calvin's middle-aged hippie parents (an annoyingly persistent indie cliche) for one; for another, the resolution, which to me seemed like a cop-out. But the clever ways the movie plays with its predecessors and its satirical targets is more than enough to win me over. There may still be no shortage of struggling male writer characters in cinema, but movies like Ruby Sparks will be all too happy to affectionately expose them.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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