Artistic creation often feels a need to turn back and look on itself for inspiration - what compels someone to be creative, their source of inspiration, the gains and losses from that art. Cinema has produced a number of real gems in depicting such trials, especially those of writers, including 'Adaptation' (2002) and 'Stranger Than Fiction' (2006). These same concerns and questions are at the heart of 'Ruby Sparks', the second feature from directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valeire Faris, as well as, in a charming and unexpected way, the very sub-genre of film that it belongs to.
Calvin (Paul Dano) wrote an incredible coming-of-age novel as a teenager. He's been hailed as a genius. Calvin is now in his late twenties, and while he has a number of short stories under his belt, he hasn’t yet produced that long-awaited second novel. Depressed, alone and wallowing in self-pity, he takes on a writing challenge from his therapist. Just write something, even and especially if it is bad. Suddenly, his creative juices are flowing again - he writes madly, never sleeps, and begins concocting from his typewriter a quirky, beautiful young woman - his perfect woman, a character named Ruby Sparks. To him, she is as real as any person, someone he knows and understands intimately, even though she doesn’t exist except on the page... until he walks in the door and finds Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) cooking in his kitchen.
At first glance, the film seems like a logical follow-up to Dayton and Faris’ Oscar-winning debut 'Little Miss Sunshine' (2006), and for the first half, it seems to tick all the boxes of that quirky, off-centre drama/romance/comedy that that film so beautifully represented. However, ‘Ruby Sparks' takes a very unexpected turn in its final act, and proves itself as not just another twee bit of quirky independent American cinema. What appears to be a romantic comedy suddenly becomes something much darker: a disturbing interrogation of the act of artistic creation. 'Stranger Than Fiction' had already (marvelously) explored the idea of a character on a page becoming a living entity, but 'Ruby Sparks' takes this one step further, placing Calvin in the position of God and Creator over Ruby with at first endearing and hilarious results, and then devastating ones, the inevitable outcome of a person having complete control over another. In many ways, Dayton and Faris surpass their work on 'Sunshine' with a much more mature, aware and self-confident piece of filmmaking. While 'Sunshine' was a film constructed out of almost-composed compositions, 'Ruby Sparks' is frenetic, invasive and unrelenting. The camera isn’t afraid of anything, of pushing right into Calvin’s personal space. Nick Urata’s stellar score help lift the film to almost operatic heights, allowing the depth and weight of the film to soar, and making 'Ruby Sparks' an almost intimidating act to witness.
In front of the camera, not a foot is put wrong. Paul Dano refuses to take the easy road with Calvin, giving us the expected image of the depressed genius hipster, before blasting apart to present a character with real depth and darkness. It is, at times, hard to like Calvin, but this isn't a fault of the performance or the character, rather the dilemma he puts to the audience, the unnerving question of what they would do in his situation. At perfect balance with Dano is Chris Messina as older brother Harry, the uber-male contrast to the disaffected youth. Messina delivers a surprising and passionate performance, a terrific combination of male bravado, realist comedy and tremendous heart. The relationship between brothers isn't thwart or difficult, rather considerate and supportive. Also of note are Annette Bening as their hippie mother and Antonio Banderas as their stepfather, both of whom milk the comedy for every ounce of its worth. Their lifestyle and philosophy are wonderfully at odds with Calvin’s uptight conservatism, and while mined for its comic potential, for once the character of the embarrassing mother is there first and foremost to serve the plot, an offering to Calvin to help him understand this woman he has created.
'Ruby Sparks' is really the supreme achievement of Zoe Kazan.
'Ruby Sparks', however, is really the supreme achievement of Zoe Kazan. The granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan, Zoe is both the writer of the film and its female lead Ruby, and her work is, by far, the most impressive of the film. The screenplay is spectacular, perfectly structured and intelligently written, taking an axe to the hipster teen move genre and the stereotype of the waif-like quirky dream girl. Her understanding of the creative process, as well as the trials and confusions of new love and relationships, is mature and intelligent. As Ruby, she steals the film. She blazes through the film with so much energy and dynamism, arresting the screen every moment she appears. Ruby is a deeply likeable and complex character, and Kazan’s natural charm only adds to this. She also proves herself as both a fearless writer and actor, with one of the most distressing and upsetting climaxes of any film this year. When awards season comes around, and this film is inevitably recognised, it will be Zoe Kazan that will be rewarded for her work. This is a woman to watch very carefully.
'Ruby Sparks' only proves that old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. At first, you might be able to anticipate it, and the intelligence of the cast and crew will trick you into thinking that, only to take you on a surprising and utterly fulfilling detour into new and exciting territory. This is certainly one of the real surprises of the year, and one you really cannot afford to miss.