Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are the directing team behind Little Miss Sunshine, the surprise Oscar-nominated hit from a few years back. The film was about a dysfunctional family on a trip across the country. The team is back with another dysfunctional person, a writer with an overactive imagination, in the new movie is Ruby Sparks.
The story is of Calvin (Paul Dano) a young writer who has had much success with his first novel, written when he was still a teen. Since then, he has put out some short stories but is basically suffering a severe case of writer’s block. Calvin lives in a bleak world with his brother and his dog as his only friends.
To break his creative funk, his therapist (Elliott Gould) gives him a writing assignment. This little spark gets the juices flowing and Calvin creates a character named Ruby Sparks. The more he writes about her, the more things in his real world change. He finds ladies underwear in his drawers. Then, all of a sudden, the actual Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) appears.
Calvin thinks that he has lost his mind. While meeting a fan, Ruby confronts Calvin. He finds that she is not some creation living in his mind but an actual person that everyone can interact with. The more discoveries he makes about Ruby, the more he finds that he can change any aspect of her at his will. He types in that Ruby speaks French, then the girl he created is fluent in the language.
Calvin finds that having the woman of his dreams may actually be a nightmare scenario. The more he writes about this woman, the more independent she becomes. The film builds to a series of confrontations that are as much between Calvin and Ruby as they are with Calvin and himself.
Zoe Kazan is easily the best part of Ruby Sparks and the major reason to see the film. This young performer has created a character full of vigor that still lives more in the imagination. At times she has to play independent one moment and clinging the next. She goes out on the furthest edges of her character and never loses her balance. This is the kind of a performance that the Academy notices.
Paul Dano has been playing variations of this same character for so long that it almost becomes old hat. Here, he gets to show a drier comic side in a role that should give him a wider berth in moving up the ladder of major actors. He shows a surprising range of emotions within the confines of this rote character.
The secondary characters of Ruby Sparks shine as well. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas play Calvin’s mom and stepdad, both artists and both a bit eclectic. They both accept Ruby with open arms even as Calvin seems embarrassed by them. One can easily understand Calvin’s mental state by looking at them. Elliott Gould plays the voice of sanity as Calvin’s therapist. He is an iconic actor taking a smaller but meaningful part that he does with his enigmatic style.
Directors Dayton and Faris know their way around the dysfunctional world. They have created a humanity that is very familiar to the audience but somehow offsetting. They capture all the elements needed to tell the tale while still finding both the comedy and tragedy of the moment.
Ruby Sparks is an interesting idea and a very different film. While not a movie on the Oscar track, it is a wonderful little cinema experience. It is a thoughtful, solid entertainment.