Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: R
Appropriate for ages 15+. Profanity, some sexual references, sporadic alcohol and drug use and a brief instance of zombie-movie-within-a-movie violence.
Ruby Sparks might make an interesting date movie—for couples willing to accept the risks. While the film is aesthetically pleasing and surprisingly nuanced, it tugs at strings that could unravel those relationships based more on fantasy than reality.
By Jared Peterson
The movie retells a timeworn tale, that of the artist charmed and absorbed by his own creation. The tortured talent is Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), who became a literary superstar when barely out of his teens. Ten years on, he is a knotted wad of anxieties, hobbled by writer’s block and bent under the burden and expectations of early success. Wealthy and lonely, having never written a follow-up, the question is: what’s next?
Challenged by his shrink (Elliott Gould) to write something, anything, to kick-start his talent, Calvin sits at his vintage typewriter and creates Ruby Sparks, a quirky, aggressively interesting dream girl. He becomes obsessed with bringing her to life on the page, and is somewhat shocked when one morning she appears in his living room. Ruby (the pixie-ish Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay) is no hallucination; she’s flesh and blood, visible to all and exactly what he’s been looking for.
Despite some depraved suggestions from his married brother Harry (Chris Messina), Calvin vows never to tamper with the manuscript that brought Ruby into being. But he’s a good writer—the woman of his dreams isn’t just real, but fully-realized. Ruby has needs, and he is dismayed when she does pesky things like demand space and independence. Her desire to grow fuels his temptation to edit their life together.
The classical underpinnings of the story—it’s a riff on the Pygmalion myth—are a blessing and a curse. The neurotic genius, the crippling writer’s block, the quirky dream girl—we’ve seen them all before. What makes Ruby Sparks, both the character and the movie, stand out is the depth and complexity that emerge as time and experience take their toll. Clichés are people, too, it seems. In the right hands, they learn and grow, dream of the future and cling to the past. This particular creation myth also has a dicey gender dynamic. In these stories, man almost always makes woman, then seeks to control her. It’s a relief that Zoe Kazan has written herself a fair lady with needs and wants that feel natural, making milquetoasty Calvin’s inevitable turn toward callousness genuinely painful to watch.
The film’s directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, gave us another little indie that could, 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, but for the previous two decades they worked in the realm of music videos and documentaries. This film combines the best of their aesthetics, playing out in the SoCal floating world familiar to anyone who still manages to catch a video these days. From sun-dappled parks to exquisitely lit cocktail parties, minimalist interiors in LA’s hip Los Feliz neighborhood to earthy retreats up the coast, the setting is lovely and arresting as needed and disappears when character comes to the fore.
In the end, Ruby Sparks turns out to be much more than the sum of its off-the-shelf parts—its familiarity is disarming and its truisms ring true.