Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
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.
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