17 October 2012


Six years after their Oscar-winning success with Little Miss Sunshine, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have made a follow-up that is somewhat darker than their first film, and yet several shades lighter than it should be, at times. Ruby Sparks is a film conceived by the actress who plays the title character and provided the screenplay, Zoe Kazan, and the project was developed with Dayton and Faris after their collaboration with Paul Dano, who stars in the lead role, on Little Miss Sunshine.

He plays Calvin Weir-Fields, an author who penned a future American classic at the age of 19, and although this has set him up for life, financially speaking, he has since grappled with writer's block and other psychological issues, as he feels the pressure to validate himself with a follow-up. As a homework exercise from his therapist, he writes a story about a girl who likes his dog, with the dog essentially serving as an avatar for Calvin's own anxieties, and suddenly can't stop writing. He even begins to fall in love with the character, which doesn't seem so crazy, once a very real Ruby suddenly manifests in his life.

The suspension of disbelief required here has long been ingrained in the sub-genre of magical realism, most notably in Woody Allen's films, and most recently in Midnight In Paris. Calvin's character is cut from the same cloth as an archetypal Allen protagonist, riddled with neuroses and frustration, but while Midnight in Paris simultaneously lambasted and revered nostalgia, Zoe Kazan seems to have set about nuking the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and those male writers who peddle it around.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl role (I really suggest reading that link if this term is totally alien to you) seems to be an entry level position for new actresses, particularly in independent movies and mumblecore bumf, and while watching Ruby Sparks, I felt as if I wouldn't have been entirely surprised if Kazan had written the film out of frustration with how commonplace those roles are. As Calvin's jock brother tells him, upon reading about Ruby on the page, Manic Pixie Dream Girls are written as girls, not people, and the film takes this lack of definition to task once the magical realism kicks into gear.

However this miracle occurred, Calvin's old typewriter remains an instrument of control over this woman he created. If he writes that she speaks French, she speaks French, instantaneously, despite never having remembered learning the language. To Calvin, this is a Weird Science-style fantasy, but Kazan is wise to examine the role of gender and control. Paul Dano is a likeable screen presence, which serves Calvin, a character who is not always likeable, very well. He makes Calvin into more than an Allen substitute, but strikes the balance well enough that we stick with him when the character goes off the rails a little.

The real star of the show is Kazan, who does a superb job of bringing personality to a character who can be rewritten as easily as a novel, with all of the sudden transitions in performance that this entails. In order to properly explode the MPDG, Ruby has to embody traits of that herself, and Kazan does an equally good job, in the script, of recognising that this archetype has only become so laughable from overuse. There has to be something that's attractive, not irritating, about her wackiness, and her foibles, for less cynical writers to value in the first place. Ruby inextricably changes along with Calvin, and their chemistry (Kazan and Dano are a couple in real life) helps Dayton and Faris to pull that off.

The conceit holds up, with a lived-in world that features great supporting performances from Chris Messina, (as the aforementioned jock brother) Annette Bening and Elliott Gould. But while the conceit holds up, there are certain flaws with the film that result in an incomplete thought, running through the script. As much as (500) Days of Summer is lampooned as one of the main culprits of the MPDG trope, that was a film that got to its conclusion and didn't chicken out of following through on its ideas. Following a thought-provoking setup, and a genuinely shocking break into the third act, Calvin's journey doesn't come to a satisfying conclusion, and neither does the film itself.

Ruby Sparks could have been one of my absolute favourite films of the year, but with the benefit of hindsight, it fails to stick the landing. I was with it, through dark and comedic shades, for about 90% of it, but then there's the ending- even Stranger Than Fiction, in which the controlling character actively cops out of a tragic ending, didn't end on as much of a cop-out. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to the rest of it is that you're not even aware of where it's going wrong, while you're watching it. Zoe Kazan delivers a great one-two punch of writing and acting that's well worth watching, despite that final hurdle, which means it stands up less well if you think about it afterwards.

Ruby Sparks is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Ruby Sparks, why not share your comments below? And make no mistake- I do recommend you see it, despite my qualms...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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