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L.A. Film Fest Review: "Ruby Sparks" Is Volatile

Frances Vega |
June 18, 2012 | 4:04 p.m. PDT

Senior Entertainment Editor

The dynamic duo that directed the indie hit "Little Miss Sunshine," is back with the romantic fantasy, “Ruby Sparks.”

Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in "Ruby Sparks" (courtesy of Fox Searchlight)
Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in "Ruby Sparks" (courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Film Independent treated audiences to a secret screening of the film at the L.A. Film Festival on Sunday. After a six-year hiatus, it is the second feature film from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris. The film is a perfect follow up to “Little Miss Sunshine.” It has whimsical feel and quirkiness while also dealing with murky gender politics and issues of control. 

“Ruby Sparks” follows Calvin (Paul Dano), a young novelist struggling with writer’s block. Calvin struck gold when he published his first novel at age 19. Fans and his agent praised him as a genius and compared his freshman novel to Catcher in the Rye. Ten years later, all the pressure to recreate his initial success has paralyzed him with fear. He tells his psychologist he just cannot seem to write anything. Calvin comes up with so many excuses for why he can’t write; he even blames his block on his dog Scotty’s constant need to go outside to relieve himself. 

To add insult to injury, Calvin is extremely lonely. The only people he interacts with are his brother Harry (Chris Messina), his psychologist (Elliot Gould), and his agents. During a session Calvin tells his therapist the main reason he got a dog was to meet new people, but as it turns out, Scotty has as many insecurities as he does. Scotty doesn’t like meeting new people and pees like a girl. Calvin thinks Scotty’s issues might be contributing to his inability to socialize with others. 

In an attempt to give Calvin some confidence, his therapist gives him a writing assignment. He tells Calvin to write a page about a person who accepts Scotty just the way he is (Scotty being a metaphor for Calvin himself). Later that night Calvin has a dream where he meets a young woman named Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan who also happened to write the screenplay). Ruby wants to paint Scotty (in perfect hipster status, Ruby is an artist.), but Calvin warns her not to get too close because Scotty is afraid of strangers. As the conversation moves along Ruby tells Calvin she likes Scotty exactly the way he is…thus a beautiful relationship ensues. 

Calvin wakes up from his dream with a newfound fervor for writing. The words begin to spew out of his mind and onto his typewriter like that of a man experiencing a manic episode. Calvin returns to his therapist very grateful to have been given the assignment. He even calls his psychologist a genius (a word that he loathes). “It's almost like I'm writing to spend time with her,” he says in reference to the accumulating pages. He was creating his ideal relationship. 

Then the strangest thing happens. Calvin starts to find women’s clothing around the house. First Scotty brings him a platform shoe, then he finds a red bra in between the couch cushions and finally one day Ruby herself appears in his apartment. Initially Calvin assumes Ruby is nothing but a hallucination and that he’s officially lost it. When he tries to leave the house to escape his imaginary girlfriend Calvin realizes other people can actually see her. He had somehow willed Ruby into existence. Was his typewriter magical? Is Calvin really a wizard? We’ll never know because the reason behind the magic is never explained in the movie. 

Instead of focusing on why this all happened, Calvin decides to explore what he’s done and how his creation works.  The funniest scenes in the movie arise out his decision to tell his brother what has happened. Initially skeptical, Harry tells Calvin to write down that Ruby speaks fluent French without realizing she’s speaking another language. Calvin types the words and voila, Ruby is speaking French and becoming very frustrated because the two brothers are looking at her like giggling idiots.  Once Harry is convinced that Calvin truly is Ruby’s creator, he jokingly suggests Calvin make her breasts bigger. Harry’s comments make Calvin realize how much power he truly he has. Overwhelmed with the situation he vows, “I'll never write about her again.”

Though Calvin is not comfortable with the idea of being “the creator,” giving Ruby true free will proves difficult. It’s at this point that “Ruby Sparks” becomes a darker and more interesting movie. 

The drama starts when Calvin reluctantly agrees to take Ruby up to Big Sur to meet his mom (Annette Bening). Bening’s character is a free-spirited hippie who lives with her equally eccentric boyfriend (Antonio Banderas) in a rainforest-y cabin. Ruby, Harry and his wife (Toni Trucks) seem to enjoy the laidback lifestyle, but Calvin is more uptight about the situation. He spends the entire weekend grumpy and spending time by himself reading a book.

The Big Sur trip makes Ruby realize there are certain things she doesn’t like about Calvin. When they return home Ruby points out that Calvin has no friends and doesn’t seem to have a life outside of their relationship. She becomes claustrophobic and suggests they start spending some time apart. 

Calvin instantly becomes depressed and wants no part in the whole time-apart business. So he pulls out his trusty old typewriter and rewrites her personality so she’ll spend more time with him. Unfortunately he does not write Ruby with as much finesse as he did when she was just an imaginary character and she becomes a bit of an emotional wreck. 

Ruby seems to be fighting Calvin’s rewrites, as her moods become the opposite of what he intends. The more her personality changes, the more obsessed Calvin becomes with controlling her. He quickly goes from a sad and lonely young man to a dark, controlling, and scary menace. 

The final stages of the relationship are reminiscent of a reverse version of Beauty and the Beast. Rather than grow as a person because of the beautiful young woman he’s gotten to know, he rejects her spirit and becomes obsessed with the idea of making her perfect again.

As an audience member you start to hope Ruby will somehow figure out a way to escape the prison he has created for her. Maybe she’ll do something to break this unfortunate spell? Maybe she’ll hit him over the head with a frying pan before he can keep writing? But alas neither of these possibilities are realized. Yes, Ruby is eventually set free and everything is wrapped up in a wonderfully vague and seemingly happy ending, but Calvin never seems to truly understand what his faults were. He eventually writes a book that serves as a very long apology letter, but do we really know he won’t make the same mistakes again? We don’t, what happens to Calvin after the Ruby incident is left for the audience to imagine. 

“Ruby Sparks” will be released in limited theaters on July 25.

NT rating: B

Reach senior entertainment editor Frances Vega here. 



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