Many of the people that worked on the 2006 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine have deservedly benefited from and capitalised upon its crossover success. Despite his stellar performance in Glengarry Glen Ross in the 1990s (as well as entertaining cameos in Grosse Pointe Blank, So I Married An Axe Murderer and Gattaca), Alan Arkin had largely drifted back into TV movies by the mid 2000s, but picked up a Shiny GongTM for his role in Little Miss Sunshine and has since been nominated again for Argo. Approaching 80, he’s probably the main go-to-man for light-hearted support right now. Michael Arndt, who won the Best Original Screenplay Shiny GongTM in 2007 for his excellent work on the film, has since penned Toy Story 3, Oblivion, the second Hunger Games movie and is currently beavering away on the forthcoming Star Wars Episode VII: Revenge of the Cataracts. Under lock and key at Magic Kingdom.
Then, of course, there’s Paul Dano. His portrayal of unhappy, tight-lipped teenager Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine was good, but he built upon it with his tremendous portrayal of brothers Paul and Eli Sunday in P.T. Anderson’s dark masterpiece There Will Be Blood. (I actually think this is one of the most sadly overlooked acting performances of recent years; Dano was nominated for a couple of minor awards but didn’t get any nods from the big ones (except by BAFTA), and deserved much more praise for his role. Perhaps he was overshadowed by Daniel Day-Lewis’ incredible, monstrous Daniel Plainview. It’s a shame.)
Despite Little Miss Sunshine being nominated for 2007’s Best Picture Shiny GongTM, husband and wife director team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris went quiet. Six-year-hiatus-quiet. In an interview with Variety last year to promote their second film Ruby Sparks, Dayton suggested they had experienced several disappointments: “You’ve got to wait for the right thing and the right conditions. We’ve had a few projects that we’ve really loved but for whatever reason, and there were many, they didn’t happen. Everything came together on this.”
Unfortunately Ruby Sparks slipped out fairly quietly in 2012, perhaps in part due to the time the directors spent out of the limelight: there would have been much more fuss had the film appeared in 2007 or 2008, but such are the fickle winds blowing around the indie fame … er … scarecrow.
In Ruby Sparks Dano teams up with the joint directors once again, playing opposite his real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay. It is a smart mix of romance and fantasy that recalls Weird Science*, although Dayton explained that while they were aware of the 1980s film they didn’t watch it until after production on Ruby Sparks was complete. A few people have also suggested that it shares certain themes with Stranger Than Fiction. While that’s not completely untrue, a more accurate comparison might be Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo or the 1991 John Candy film Delirious.
Dano plays writer Calvin Weir-Fields. He is successful, but his only full novel to date was written ten years earlier, and in the present he is suffering from writer’s block, as well as an unfortunate hipster-style insistence on using a vintage typewriter instead of a computer. In addition to career pressures he’s also being badgered by his brother Harry (Chris Messina), who wants him to find a new girlfriend. After his therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) gives him an assignment to write a page about someone who likes his dog Scotty, Calvin begins to dream – and then write about – a girl named Ruby Sparks.
Suddenly, and inexplicably, Calvin’s creation comes to life and he finds that a nonchalant Ruby has left his dreams and has taken up residence in his house. Even more weirdly, he discovers that other people can see, touch and hear Ruby too, and after coming to terms with the ‘miracle’ he enters into a relationship with her. Harry and Calvin discover that Ruby can be changed if Calvin simply writes down what he wants her to do, but after some initial fun Calvin – falling in love with his own creation (and essentially himself) – vows never to write about her again.
Things go well for a few months, but after Calvin introduces her to his hippy mother Gertrude (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend Mort (Antonio Banderas) his relationship with Ruby begins to slowly deteriorate. When he gets jealous due to the amount of time she is spending away from him with others, he begins to write about her again, altering the character to make her more clingy. Subsequently finding this irritating and unworkable, he makes changes to Ruby again and again, each time creating further problems for their relationship until, exasperated, he attempts to return her to her original, ‘normal’ state. As Calvin tries to exert more and more control and things get worse between the two as a result, Ruby Sparks is at its most interesting (and delivers upon its initial premise) with some seriously dark scenes that are as twisted as a Charlie Kaufman script. Calvin’s moral compass is all over the place and he becomes little more than an angry puppeteer, refusing to let his creation leave the house and forcing her call him a genius over and over again.
It is an interesting premise, for sure. Kazan plays with the idea that a writer’s creations are essentially just narcissistic versions of themselves, however well-rounded and fleshed-out a character may appear to be. (That Kazan wrote this and then acted in the film herself adds a whole new wry layer to the underlying message.) The film could also be read as a criticism of stock Manic Pixie Dream Girl character stereotypes (See Zooey Deschanel in (500 Days of) Summer or Natalie Portman in Garden State; phrase coined by critic Nathan Rabin) that have more often than not been invented by male writers specifically for their male protagonists. Zoe Kazan has however actually criticised the term, suggesting that it is reductive, diminutive and misogynistic toward female characters. Still, the film does feel like a withering comment on the way in which female characters have been written for romantic comedies of late, particularly those that are out for the hipster dollar. As Harry wittily points out to Calvin: “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real”.
Kazan is decent as the spontaneous and idiosyncratic Ruby, who gradually loses her fizz as the movie progresses, and Dano is a good fit for the role of Calvin, a young, awkward writer cut from a different cloth to the rest of his family. Calvin is a self-obsessed cold fish, even when Ruby is with him, and as some of Ruby’s characteristics begin to grate with him it’s interesting to see his darker, more controlling side come to the fore (as Ruby is – by definition – just an extension of Calvin, she shares his worst characteristics: despite all his attempts to eradicate them he cannot ever ‘win’). Calvin’s house is empty, minimalist and lacking in true warmth, but Dano still brings some likeability to the role and it’s impossible not to feel some sympathy towards the character.
Unfortunately, the talented supporting cast is given little to do. Benning, Banderas and Gould have non-taxing and minor roles, and I’ve seen the Harry character a thousand times before – he only seems to be there to highlight Calvin’s lack of testosterone, and to act as a confidant to his younger brother. Steve Coogan also appears as fellow author Langdon Tharp, a predatory and unlikeable bastard who attempts to seduce Ruby at a party; it’s the kind of performance Coogan probably could have turned in while fast asleep.
Given that it’s a romantic comedy, and a smart one at that, a few more laughs courtesy of Coogan (or anyone else for that matter) wouldn’t have gone amiss. Still, Ruby Sparks is – on balance – an enjoyable and deftly constructed film, well-paced and with decent lead performances. The movie’s principle strength is Kazan’s clever story, an amusing exploration of creativity, control and relationships that examines and subsequently deconstructs the male-held notion of the ‘ideal’ female. Hopefully the third film by Dayton and Faris will arrive before 2018, and hopefully we will see more work of this quality from Kazan too.
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Written by: Zoe Kazan
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Chris Messina
Running Time: 104 Minutes