Ruby Sparks is a lightly-meta comedy about a fictional figure and the writer who creates her. Within the film, the title character (Zoe Kazan) springs from the typewriter of frustrated literary sensation Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), whose first novel, published when he was just 19, was a sensation that he's having great difficulty following up.
A decade later, a blocked, lonely Calvin starts writing about an idealized girl, Ruby: 26 years old, from Dayton, Ohio. Loves Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. Doesn't own a computer. Always roots for the underdog. Flighty and forgetful in as charming a manner as possible.
After showing the work-in-progress manuscript to his older, married brother, Harry (Chris Messina), Calvin gets some sage advice: "No woman wants to read this. Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real." But Calvin continues, and soon the intensity of his work somehow manifests Ruby in the flesh — in his apartment, fresh from his bed, to be exact.
If Ruby Sparks is about the relationship between Ruby and her creator, the most important creator may not be Calvin, but Kazan herself, who wrote the screenplay.
The movies are probably the most male-dominated media form — college film students learn the phrase "male gaze" for good reason — and too much of the medium, knowingly or not, has been about how men see women.
Ruby Sparks is far from the first occasion in which a film tries to subvert this tradition. But what's different is that it isn't just about the power relationship between male creators and female characters. It's about a kind of young woman that ostensibly brainy, sensitive young men create: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This type was overdue for a takedown, and that it comes from the pen of a young actress who writes the role for herself is a borderline heroic feat all by itself.
As initially sketched by Calvin, Ruby is his platonic ideal of a girlfriend. She gazes into his eyes, then she jumps into the pool. She's smart and soulful, and she cooks and loves blow jobs. She's perfect. He vows to never write about her again.
But then this shockingly real woman becomes real — sometimes moody, sometimes needy, often independent, sometimes too tired or otherwise uninterested in sex. She notices he doesn't have friends and begins to resent the pressure of being his everything. And so Calvin plays Dr. Frankenstein again, going back to his typewriter to modulate her behavior.
It's a great concept, but the execution is merely good. The direction, from Little Miss Sunshine tandem Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, doesn't add much to what Kazan put on the page. The conceit allows Kazan an un-self-conscious range as a performer. But her script isn't dark, nervy, or assured enough. For instance, Ruby Sparks isn't quite sure what it wants to do with Calvin's mother (Annette Bening), a potential real-world Ruby analog whose worldview and lifestyle seems to have changed wholesale when she changed husbands.
While it wants to subvert the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as created by men, Ruby Sparks doesn't want to subvert the romantic comedy genre along with it. Or, not enough anyway. Like the character that Calvin initially creates, Ruby Sparks is fascinating and fun but ultimately too eager to please.
Opening Friday, August 17th, Ridgeway Four