The problem with Zoe Kazan’s script for Ruby Sparks isn’t a lack of laughs, or that it stretches its premise beyond breaking point. It’s that this little subgenre of “writer creates fantasy world/character and then learns it ain’t so marvellous” is overly familiar. There is so little that is new left to draw from this murky pond, at least on the evidence here. In addition, while Kazan’s moral concerning the unrealistic illusions that (men) project onto their relationships is a sturdy one, she doesn’t so much gently hammer home the message as inflict blunt force trauma on the viewer to get it across.
One could imagine more subtlety and nuance from, say, Woody Allen. After all, he gave us The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which fictional characters emerge from a movie and start interacting within the “real” world. Then there’s Marc Foster’s Stranger than Fiction, which has a not dissimilar tone to Ruby Sparks but inverts the protagonists. In Ruby Sparks it is the creator, not the creation, whom the plot revolves around. The mechanism is more overtly a metaphor here too. None of the meta-commentary of a Last Action Hero.
Paul Dano’s novelist, Calvin, who wrote a bestseller 10 years ago but has yet to publish a sophomore effort, finds his writer’s block is er… unblocked when he starts dreaming of the titular character. He soon discovers that she is not just fuelling his burst in creativity, however. She becomes tangible. And everything he types on the page, she does. You can see where this is going right there, yes? It’s also one of those set-ups where the viewer is conscious, at every turn, of possible tangents that could be explored - would be explored – if such a conceit were actualised. But, in order to keep a rein on a premise that could become uncontrollable, much of this is left dangling.
Indeed, the rigid focus on the feckless Calvin and his tunnel vision idea of love has a number of unfortunate side effects. One is that, in story terms, there are a number of longueurs where it becomes clear we are treading water. The only distractions from this are some colourful supporting characters, most particularly Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s mother and her boyfriend. There’s also Steve Coogan as a sleazy (now there’s a surprise!) agent and the always-welcome Elliot Gould as Calvin’s shrink. Chris Messina (seen in the very ropey fourth season of Damages) has a lot of fun as Calvin’s brother and confidante.
The other problem is Dano himself. The actor wanders from scene to scene as if he is suffering from a terminal bladder complaint, with the result that it’s difficult to invest in his character or situation. This isn’t a new thing, it’s just the Dano persona. Kazan is his real world (well, Hollywood, anyway) other half, and she makes Ruby a decidedly Zooey Deschanel-esque kook (Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, I understand, the “type”).
On the evidence of this, Kazan has a promising career as a writer but she needs to resist the urge to over-egg the pudding. The Ruby freak-out scene, where Calvin types instruction after instruction that she enacts accordingly, is an actor’s dream and it is dramatically strong stuff but it represents an easy and inevitable place for the characters to end up. Nothing in Ruby Sparks really surprises, which is the disappointment. A scene at a party featuring Deborah Ann Woll (Jessica in True Blood) as Calvin’s ex merely serves to underscore what has already been established in bold type and enormous font-size (it’s very nice to see Woll, though).
And, while her dialogue is frequently very witty, it occasionally reveals itself as cringingly self-conscious (to wit, “Maybe we knew each other in another life, or maybe we just go to the same coffee shop”).
Whether the ending represents Calvin having grown sufficiently not to make the same mistake twice, or about to do exactly that, is open to debate and no doubt intentionally so. Its interpretation appears to have provoked a fair amount of debate, but it elicited a response of caution from me. Even if the “reality” has changed, the image of Calvin’s fantasy remains the same.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris return to the director’s chair(s) for the first time since Little Miss Sunshine. Rather than creating a bold visual style (although the static camerawork is a signature choice in itself), the tools they employ most effectively are in editing and soundtrack. Such an approach was evident in their superior debut but, while it informs and emphasises the scenario and performances, it does rather scream “quirky little indie”.