Paul Dano as Calvin Weir-Fields
Zoe Kazan as Ruby Sparks
Chris Messina as Harry
Annette Bening as Gertrude
Antonio Banderas as Mort
Alia Shawkat as Mabel
Steve Coogan as Langdon Tharp
Elliott Gould as Dr. Rosenthal
Aasif Mandvi as Cyrus Modi
Deborah Ann Woll
Wallace Langham as Warren
Toni Trucks as Susie
Eleanor Seigler as Mandi
John F. Beach as Adam
Jane Anne Thomas as Saskia
Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has been desperately trying to write the follow-up to his popular first novel that reached cult status, but he’s haunted by dreams of a mysterious young woman calling herself Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). When his therapist recommends he write about her, Cal gets deeply invested into doing so, doing some of his best writing in years, but one day Ruby shows up in his house and he realizes that he somehow has manifested his dream girl.
It’s been six years since music video directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris burst into movies with the Oscar-winning “Little Miss Sunshine” and their absence since then has been as noticeable as that of Alexander Payne before last year’s “The Descendants.” There may have been some sophomore effort pressures involved with the decision to make such a different movie, but there seems to be no irony in the fact the movie is about a writer trying to write a follow-up to a popular book. In fact, it’s something that’s impossible to ignore.
Every single male writer at one point or another has wondered how great it might be to create the perfect wife or girlfriend via their writing and “Ruby Sparks” takes that idea to the most logical conclusion with Paul Dano playing Cal, the writer of a “Catcher in the Rye” style novel read and loved by everyone, who starts writing about a woman he’s dreamed about only to have her suddenly appear in his house. At first Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) seems like the perfect girlfriend, being exactly as Cal wrote her, and the only one who knows the truth is his brother Harry (Chris Messina) who is busting at the seams to tell others. As Ruby starts to find her independence, Cal tries to alter her through his writing only to disastrous results.
That probably sounds like an intriguing enough premise, and it is, which is why it’s hard to put one’s finger on why some aspects fail so badly that it ruins the parts that work. The results are a pretentious literary-minded romance that feels uneven, often suffering from weird tonal shifts where you’re not sure if it’s trying to be a comedy and failing or it’s meant to be taken seriously as a dark thriller.
Maybe it’s just my general apathy towards Dano as a leading man, but his dopey portrayal of Cal makes it hard to believe he’s the genius author everyone claims and that gross bit of nepotistic miscasting contributes greatly to why “Ruby Sparks” fails so badly. Kudos to Zoe Kazan for being able to pull off so many emotional shifts with her character, and it’s another impressive performance. She’s a good writer, too, but what begins as a fairly decent premise veers from feeling overly-precious to downright yucky once we realize where things are going. Anyone who has ever been in any sort of relationship knows you can’t really change people to meet your own needs, and Cal discovers this the hard way.
The film has solid production values thanks to Dayton & Faris, though it often feels too big for its relatively intimate premise. The best part of the movie is a visit to Big Sur to see Cal’s mother, a New Age hippie played by Annette Bening who lives with her woodworking boyfriend (Antonio Banderas), the two of them offering the movie’s first truly funny moments. This section is a lot of fun but it’s soon over and we’re back to just Dano and Kazan with Messina sometimes popping in to offer color commentary as the story gets darker and darker. Other supporting roles played by Elliot Gould as Cal’s therapist and Steve Coogan playing a lecherous colleague of Cal’s don’t do much to feel like anyone other than Kazan is doing anything particularly groundbreaking.
The problems with the movie are exacerbated once you realize Kazan wrote the screenplay as a vehicle for herself and current boyfriend Paul Dano – neither things I knew going into the movie. It’s already bad enough she was cast as this girl everyone wants in her indie breakout “The Exploding Girl,” but casting herself as the perfect woman for her own boyfriend seems like the height of artistic narcissism that makes it hard to enjoy the movie and what it was trying to achieve.
The Bottom Line:
“Ruby Sparks” is the type of movie I normally enjoy, but the fact it never gets beyond feeling like a Stephen King fable about the dangers of getting too invested in your own writing, leads to a rather disappointing climax and obvious resolution.