You sit at your desk, fire up your laptop, open a word document and crack your knuckles, ready to compose an art form that will get you loads of attention and admiration. You glance at the keyboard, intent to smash the keys to bits to squeeze out a masterpiece. You end up staring at a blank document for an hour. Your creativity has eluded you. You call it writers block. Whether you’re a writer or an artist or a software coder or a banker or a scientist, your talent evades you at some point of your life. It could be because of social circumstances. Or as the film Ruby Sparks expounds, it could be because you paid more attention to the keyboard and fell in love with the idea of the ideal woman rather than the woman herself.
Admit it. Don’t lie. Either you’ve done it in the past or you’re doing it right now. Rather than being in love with a girl for the way she is, you spend all your energy trying to make her the way you want her to be, and then emotionally manipulate her to feel bad about not being good enough. The dark comedy-fantasy-drama Ruby Sparks, a quaint little masterpiece, chronicles the unfortunate proclivity of men to influence situations so that they can have things their way. The brilliance of the film lies in the fact that it addresses this issue not in a heavy duty depressing manner, but in a quirky and often laugh out loud hilarious way.
Ruby Sparks stars Paul Dano as Calvin, a very young and famous writer who had written a best seller during high school, but has since been struggling to come up with a definitive piece of literature. Calvin is stuck in his past, unable to get over his premature celebrity, unable to reconcile with his ex, unable to come up with fresh ideas and stories. In fact he is so horribly jammed in the past that he still uses a typewriter to work, despite living in a very plush modern house. Calvin’s moment of clarity finally arrives when he dreams of a manic pixie dream girl named Ruby and proceeds to scribble a story about her. Things become complicated when Ruby somehow comes to life, and Calvin realizes that he can alter her behavior through his writing.
The film becomes an unpredictable and fascinating watch as Calvin fiddles with the moral choice of manipulating Ruby. The constantly surprising and entertaining turns are courtesy of Zoe Kazan who not only wrote the film but also stars as the titular character. Her script is clever enough to avoid the pitfalls of feminist rants and instead establishes how postmodern culture frequently falls back on the Bechdel test. Whether it’s rom com or drama or magic realism, it’s so darn charming that it just works on every level. Kazan happens to be the legendary Elia Kazan’s granddaughter and also Dano’s off screen girlfriend which probably makes their back and forth in the film feel so real. It also makes you wonder how much of her script was based on their own relationship.
Dano is known for his roles in There will be blood and Little Miss Sunshine but this is clearly his best work. His unbroken shifts from bewilderment to anger to helplessness to pure awe are incredible. He’s excellent in the scene where he realizes that it is ethically wrong to make Ruby do what he wants but then proceeds to pull the strings anyway. In another scene he holds Ruby’s ragdoll like face, looking at her as if she were his malfunctioning science experiment, yet realizing that he is incapable of treating his significant other with the freedom and the respect that she deserves. He is absolutely brilliant because he manages to garner sympathy despite the character he plays. The man is not only the most underrated actor in the industry and it is especially sad considering the massive online fan following of Joseph Gordon Levitt. Dano’s significant dramatic chops are all too obvious but he has a vulnerable style of comic timing that is very rare in contemporary Hollywood.
It becomes clear how dark comedy and drama were so beautifully augmented in Ruby Sparks when you get to know that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed the film. The duo last made the terrific Little Miss Sunshine and waited six years to find the right script. Dayton and Faris are legends themselves, they’re the reason why we get nostalgic about our childhood - they directed some of the best music videos of REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Oasis. These guys are responsible for making the 90’s the most memorable part of my life and it’s thanks to them I’ve spent most of my adult life listening to Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979. In Ruby Sparks they demonstrate their aptitude for subverting comedy with drama when Calvin in a fit of rage fires out lines on his typewriter to torture and spite Ruby.
Fantasy and reality meld together seamlessly and Dayton and Faris often make you take the magic realism at face value instead of Ruby metaphorically being a therapeutic exercise of a writer trying to break through his block. With a theme like this it is easy for a filmmaker to stumble into the mawkish levels of melodrama, but the staging here is pitch perfect, and moving rather than deafening. A confrontation that Calvin has with his ex is quietly powerful and Dano brings the house down in a scene where his God complex takes over him.
The film does a great job of sketching the egotistic self-aggrandizing baggage that generally comes with intellectual superiority and even the inherent insecurity of men in relationships. Calvin is a gifted individual, but like many of us, can’t digest his significant other being more successful than him. How would he, a man, establish his superiority if his girl commands equal power and fame? Like many of us, he is afraid of being abandoned by the girl he loves, and like many of us, he’d rather manipulate the girl and push her away first. Like many of us, instead of looking for solutions to problems in a relationship, he’d rather hurt the girl and dwell in his egotistical plane of existence. And like many of us, he gets what he deserves and spends an eternity regretting his mistake. The genius of the film, however, lies in its climax, because the final scene delivers a meta message – it transpires the way you want it to be.
(First published in DNA)