The story of an author incidentally bringing one of his characters to life can go a lot of different directions. There’s an inherent fantasy element, an obvious comedy angle, and in the case of “Ruby Sparks,” some dramatic potential as well. Actress Zoe Kazan’s screenwriting debut tries to touch on all three.
Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer whose first novel became an American sensation but between writer’s block and a mess of psychological issues he can’t follow it up. But he’s been having dreams of a girl lately, which starts to stir up some inspiration, and eventually — for reasons never explained — he somehow writes her into existence.
The predominant tone throughout most of “Ruby Sparks” is lighthearted. The cast contains numerous talents in supporting and in many cases less-than-supporting roles, in part likely due to the directing duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose film debut “Little Miss Sunshine” made waves throughout Hollywood and earned Alan Arkin an Oscar.
Veterans Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas make big impressions with little screen time, while emerging or underrated talents Steve Coogan (“Tropic Thunder”), Chris Messina (“The Newsroom”), Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”) and Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”) round things out with pivotal roles, generally adding to the film’s lighter tones.
Kazan really nails the humor, both as a writer and an actress, when Calvin discovers Ruby is not in fact a figment of his imagination and later on when he tries to control her through his writing. The struggle comes when the script shifts from fun to dramatic. She has trouble finding the right conceit to bring this silly fantasy to an appropriate boil. She ultimately has to shoehorn several flaws into Calvin’s character in order to create a problem and consequently a full story arc.
The premise and rules surrounding Ruby’s existence mean the potential directions for the story are limitless. Calvin could go as far as to manipulate her for his own desires or accept her as how she is and live happily ever after. So while the film is busy playing around all quirky indie comedy-like, the audience has been running through the countless scenarios and will come to expect a meaningful turn of events. Kazan chooses to focus on whether the ideal love interest of the male protagonist as depicted in works of fiction could ever exist in real life.
There’s a sharp anti-misogynistic and feminist undercurrent inherent in that concept, which Kazan tries to frame it as a question of whether Calvin can truly be happy with a Ruby who acts of her own volition, or at least with allowing her to. Considering she’s his dream girl and he’s come up dry in his romantic life for years prior to her inception, you think he’d accept her and not be stupid enough to jeopardize his luck, but there wouldn’t be a film there. Instead, Calvin becomes preoccupied with losing her.
Given the number of unlikable characters Dano has played over the years, the unflattering characteristics that emerge in Calvin come across with ease through Dano’s performance. He’s actually a rather pathetic and forlorn character start to finish, with his lone redeeming quality being his humility in a world quick to call him a genius. He’s a amusing to watch in the beginning, but you’ll wish he weren’t so completely clueless.
Considering Ruby is a fictional character in two senses, Kazan gives her a realistic flair. When Calvin messes with her a bit, however, she enters some awkward territory and given the nature of her character, we never treat Ruby as a complete, real person, though we wish Calvin did.
“Ruby Sparks” gets lost in trying to figure out what kind of story it wants to tell, namely because outside of a fantastical concept, there’s not an obvious one. Kazan seems most interested in making Calvin feel horrible about the way he’s handled Ruby so that he can redeem himself, though in doing so she collapses her feminism argument — if that was even her intention.
Still, Kazan fuses her debut with endearing qualities though she’d be well advised to lean toward comedy in the future. Dayton and Faris handle the humor best and seem unsure how to handle its spiral into the bizarre.
All the other talents involved in “Ruby Sparks” elevate the material to a certain level. They all appear to be having a great time doing it too, even if the core conflict they so wonderfully support is much less sure of itself.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Zoe Kazan
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina