Ruby Sparks is the first screenplay from star Zoe Kazan and the film features the highly anticipated return of the husband/wife filmmaking duo who brought us 2006’s mega hit Little Miss Sunshine. Similar in style to their Oscar-nominated feature, this highly original and delightful concept is a rare thing in Hollywood. It’s a sweet, emotional and enjoyable flick that, free of pretense and a visible Hollywood hand, legitimately pulls the audience in without tropes or trite concepts that would unfairly cause many to blindly and inaccurate lying label this as just another “rom-com”.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) found immense literary success at a young age and like any artist who hits it big in their first at bat, there’s tremendous pressure for a follow-up. Yet, as any successful artist (or agent) can testify, no matter how great your accomplishments, the world is less concerned with what you’ve done and more concerned with what you’re going to do. As Calvin waits for his next big inspiration, the pressure from his agent, his fans and the literary world weighs on him. His unfulfilled post-fame lifestyle now finds him searching something he just can’t attain. He wants more in life, and wants it so badly that the same mind that created his award-winning and landmark debut novel manifests a muse in the form of a living breathing person, one Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). As far-fetched and implausible as it all seems, Calvin learns that Ruby is real, and continues to be as real as any idea in his head or written on his typewriter…no matter how outlandish it might be.
Zoe Kazan, deserves immense praise for this screenplay. For her first writing credit, she knocks this completely out of the park. From the so-grounded-it’s-believable premise, to the 80’s era fish out of water love story, to the pitch perfect casting, there’s so much to adore the film. However one distinction needs to be made; this is not a “love story”. It’s a story about love. What’s the difference you ask? Well a love story is about people falling in and out of love but most times, were it not for the story they wouldn’t know love if it hit them with a park bench. Ruby Sparks is film that shows us two people learning just the love is a fickle a creature and more importantly, one that can’t be controlled. Even if you could, there’s also not one setting you can put a human being on to make things last if they weren’t meant to. There’s no certainty of a happy ending, there’s no one thing that can be said or done to magically make everything better. There’s just two people…the rest is up to whatever they decide to do together.
Sounds vague but actually it’s about as real as it gets. The concept and further the tone and cinematography of Ruby Sparks feels like something you’d see in a Sofia Coppola or Wes Anderson film. But while that can be said about any” independent film” (which would actually be an unfair lump assumption), it really is just a litmus test indicating the level of quality of the film. Kazan takes a simple premise and turns it into something inspired and just a tad shy of brilliant. Many times, an interesting concept just doesn’t have the legs to keep the intrigue beyond the first or second act. But but combined with a broader vision from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and the fantastic A-listers, the film exists on a level that should make all other films envious. But really, would you expect any less from the Little Miss Sunshine team?
Faris and Dayton bring together one very eclectic and talented cast for this ensemble pic. First on that list is Chris Messina who is an under-appreciated screen gem. He is simply fantastic playing Calvin’s brother Harry (even though they look nothing like each other). He provides a perfect counterbalance to Calvin as a straight laced, by the numbers older brother. But the rest of the ensemble cast, (playing more like cameos actually) equally sings even as we wind up wanting more time with the all to brief characters like Elliot Gould (as Calvin’s psychiatrist), Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas (as Calvin &Harry ‘s hippie parents). Dano, who does a complete 180 from the intensity of acting going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis (in There Will Be Blood) and Robert DeNiro (in Being Flynn), has a relaxed demeanor that almost recalls a young Gene Wilder and it’s just fun to watch him deal with the absurdity of his creation/imagination.
The energetic plot really brings these odd-ball characters out of the wood work and everyone looks to just have a blast on screen, but none more than the titular Ruby played by the adorable and lovely Zoe Kazan. Ruby is the construct of Calvin’s mind and therefore she’s at the whim of whatever he decides for her. When she starts to form her own ideas and become independent of Calvin, he re-writes he to have more control and Kazan is captivating as she comically but wildly goes from one stereotypical one-note emotion to the next. She’s magnetic and hypnotic to watch as Ruby and Calvin’s relationship weathers the ups and the downs all the way to the film’s dark, highly emotional and dizzying climax. As Kazan and Dano are a couple in real-life the two bring a tangible and believable chemistry to the scenes that just comes right through the screen.
To call Ruby Sparks “quirky” is both fitting and an insult in a way. There’s a connotation that a movie can only be quirky if it’s independent and that independents films are mostly quirky stories. Ruby’s story is one that will help dispel the myth as it stands on its own an independent film but one that has way more going for it than goofy characters and an off the wall plot. Kazan’s screenplay and Dayton/Faris direction turn what could be a mildly funny and interesting concept into something endearing, hysterical and believable (of course you have if you look past the high concept and impossible plot). An entirely charming, highly original film that is as emotional as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Immensely enjoyable and down to earth, Ruby Sparks is a highly entertaining ensemble indie comedy destined to be another gem in Dayton/Faris’ crown and a sign of great things to come from Kazan. Make sure you seek this out as Ruby Sparks might likely be the surprise hit of 2012.