A charmingly retro high-concept of romance that weaves its meta-fictional web in a case of art imitating life. Or is it the other way around?
While Ruby Sparks may see an artist trapped in a scenario of his own creation, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris could scarcely be accused of being caught in a rut. Already legends in the music video world for their work with the likes of R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers and their award-winning work with The Smashing Pumpkins (“Tonight Tonight“), the husband and wife team of Dayton and Faris made the successful leap from short form to feature with the critically acclaimed Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Yet in the six years since that feature, the team have been painfully absent from our screens, reportedly working on an adaptation of Tom Perotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, now said to be in the hands of The Kids Are All Right director Lisa Cholodenko. With the release of Ruby Sparks, we hope that their next absence isn’t so lengthy.
In a case of art imitating life, actress Zoe Kazan writes herself into a cinematic romance with real-world partner Paul Dano, last seen coupling on-screen in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Her screenplay concentrates on novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (played by Dano), who is struggling with writer’s block. After a brilliant debut with his first novel, Calvin finds himself unable to write anything else that comes close. As an exercise, Calvin’s therapist (Elliott Gould) suggests that he write about someone who likes his dog Scotty, something of a beast of burden to Calvin. From his mind comes Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), who he quickly realises he is falling in love with. Then to his surprise, and to the incredulity of his brother Harry (Chris Messina), Ruby appears fully formed in real life. Has he gone off the deep end, or is it true romance at last?
Dayton and Faris might relate to the dilemma of the difficult second artistic birth, with their second production coming over half a decade after their last. As they did with their debut, they have relied on the writing talents of a debut screenwriter, and on the surface Kazan has fallen back on the familiar trope of the ‘imaginary friend’. More accurately, this film is of the magical-realism school that is owned by Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), with a lead character that seems as stubbornly out of time as one of Woody’s creations, or even Mr. Allen himself. Steadfastly sticking to his typewriter, baffled by modern technology, and a dog named after F. Scott Fitzgerald, his retroactive charm makes the premise endearing, and the existence of the walking stereotype in Ruby all the more palatable.
Far more alluring that a giant talking rabbit, but less so than a store Mannequin (1987), Ruby flips from happy to sad on a dime, often on the whim of her creator. From here the film takes a much darker turn than one would expect from Kazan’s imaginative premise. Calvin reveals himself to be overly controlling in a relationship, and the fantastical device allows this to manifest literally in at least one sequence. Watching couples therapy play out on-screen may not be the most romantic of premises, but like last year’s Crazy Stupid Love (2011), Ruby Sparks is a reminder that falling in love is easy, but staying in love is the hard part. The delightful indulgence of Calvin’s hippie mother (Annette Bening) and a clearly loving it Antonio Banderas as her free-spirited boyfriend may be familiar totems, but despite his protests, in many ways Calvin is seeking the same in Ruby but can’t let himself enjoy it. As much a coming of age piece as it is a romance, which is increasingly the trend for films about 20 and 30-somethings in love, it’s a high-concept Pygmalion where the creator is the one that ultimately ends up changing the most.
At times Ruby Sparks is almost too consciously twee, and the cogs of the meta-fictional are more visible than usual. Yet it is a sweetness that wins out in the end, Kazan, Dayton and Faris successfully parlaying their fantasy into a believable reality. Kazan brought her own creation into existence through words and deeds, and asks us to believe in her concept of romance for a while. If you are willing to follow her, there’s a rewarding charm to it all as well.
Ruby Sparks is released in Australia on 20 September 2012 from Fox.