“Ruby Sparks” does not exist in some vacuum of wholesale originality. You could argue that the “Pygmalion” myth is just one of the many stories that have covered similar ground in the past, both narratively and thematically. But the film takes a very grounded approach to its one big leap of fantasy, and the result is a film that offers up a warm and wise fable about the way we romanticize people at the start of a relationship, only to be disappointed as ugly, messy reality assures itself.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris managed to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination for their first film, but that was 2006, and this is their first film since then. It’s hard not to draw some parallel between them and Calvin Weir-Fields, played by Paul Dano, who was a successful novelist with an acclaimed first novel that was released before he was eighteen but who now finds himself crippled by writer’s block. He’s been seeing Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) to try to figure out what’s causing his block, but making no real progress. Rosenthal asks him to try a writing exercise one day based on Calvin’s confession that the main reason he got a dog was so that people would stop to play with the dog and give him a perfect excuse for conversation. Rosenthal asks him to imagine someone stopping to play with the dog and write down the conversation, and when Calvin tries that, he imagines a girl. No, he imagines “the” girl. And once he starts, he suddenly can’t stop. He cranks out page after page, describing this girl in such detail that she starts to feel real to him.
And then, one morning, he wakes up and she’s actually in his house.
Ruby Sparks, as he named her, is played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script, and I’m impressed on several levels by her work here. It’s a pretty great performance, and as Calvin tries to figure out the mechanics of this magic that he’s created, Ruby has to change in ways both subtle and broad. If he writes that she speaks only in French, Ruby is suddenly fluent in French. If he writes that she is manic and happy, she has to turn that up. If he writes that she can’t live without him, she becomes clingy to the point of psychosis. It’s a constant process of tweaking her behavior and her personality, and Kazan manages to define Ruby so strongly that each shift registers. It’s a lovely performance, and it only works if Calvin is equally easy to read. Dano is one of those performers who could easily start to fall back on a shtick built around his tics and his quirky mannerisms, but I think Calvin is exactly the right role for him. Calvin’s been called a genius so many times by so many people that the mention of the word makes him twitch like he’s about to get hit, and while that seems like a hard character to make identifiable, Dano finds the human frailty that drives Calvin and manages to make him endearing instead of obnoxious. His joy once he realizes that Ruby is real and that other people can see her is transcendent, and Dano lights up in a way we’ve never really seen from him onscreen before.
The problem is, of course, that people are rarely as simple as a first impression might suggest. Mannerisms that seem adorable when we meet someone might eventually grate on us so much that we can’t be around them. The things that make us fall in love can turn out to be the things that drive us apart given enough time. The person we initially meet is rarely the entire person, and while Calvin whole-heartedly loves the Ruby Sparks that he creates, the more she lives, the more she begins to assert free will and grow and change, the less enamored he is. It’s an incredibly simple and even obvious idea, but Kazan’s screenplay manages to play with the idea in a way that never makes the film feel like it’s working hard to assert a theme or a metaphor. It works precisely because the character work is so strong and meticulous.
Chris Messina plays Calvin’s brother, Harry, who is married with a kid, and while he’s not as professionally successful as Calvin, Harry is far more successful as a person. The same is true of Calvin’s mother, Gertrude (Annette Bening), who has built a wonderful life for herself with her second husband Mort (Antonio Banderas). Bening and Banderas are both hilarious and touching in their scenes, and there’s this great unruly sense of life at the edge of the frame. So often, these high concept ideas are turned into films where people don’t behave the way real people would, but “Ruby Sparks” remains grounded all the way through. The film has a very direct emotional arc that it follows, and it never gets distracted, never digresses unnecessarily.
I’m not a big fan of the phrase “manic pixie dream girl,” because I think it’s a reductive dismissal, used by many critics in place of any actual thoughts or insights, and I’m guessing that Kazan is equally irritated by the phrase. If Ruby Sparks begins life as an archetype, the so-called MPDG, then the film also serves as a refutation of that idea by gradually adding shades and layers to the work she does until we’re left with a complicated, well-realized human being, the exact same journey that Calvin takes, and once we get a full look at Ruby, it’s hard to just dismiss her as a catch-phrase, a cliche. We can’t change the people we love, no matter how hard we want to at times, and relationships are often a process of figuring out just how much of the real person we are prepared to accept. The way Kazan’s script tackles these ideas and the way Faris and Dayton have brought it to life, “Ruby Sparks” seems like an unusually wise and smart look at these simple truths, and it spins something fully rewarding from something very simple.
“Ruby Sparks” opens today in limited release.