Film Review: Ruby Sparks ****

Imagine you’re a neurotic single novelist, relatively successful but emotionally unfulfilled.

You base the female protagonist of your latest novel on your dream girl, and she miraculously comes
to life. Not only that, but she becomes your lover and you’re able to influence everything she thinks, says and does through the words emanating from your typewriter. Flinging ethics to one side for a moment, the ability to wield godlike power would help you to iron out any difficulties the relationship faces. What could possibly go wrong?

Directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks is the follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, the indie breakout film of 2006. The film centres on genius writer Calvin (Paul Dano) who improbably brings to life his girlfriend Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), and can construct her to be everything he wants romantically.

I’m a huge fan of Dano. He was brilliant as mute teenager Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine, and more than held his own as milkshake-drinking priest Eli against World’s Greatest Actor™ Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. He’s on top form here as the fallible Calvin, demonstrating joy, bewilderment and despair that really humanises the character. Dano shines alongside Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay. It is no surprise that the pair are involved romantically in real life given the sizzling onscreen chemistry they share.

The film isn’t without its flaws. Though the two central characters of Calvin and Ruby are three-dimensional and engrossing, the other characters feel a bit like filler to pad out the film. Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) is on hand to offer advice, but he’s annoying and boorish. The extended sequence involving Calvin’s mother and her lover, played by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, interrupted the flow of the film and didn’t appear to serve any narrative purpose. Steve Coogan pops up in a mildly amusing cameo as a literary agent, playing a character not a million miles away from the tabloid perception of himself.

Far from your standard romcom fare, Ruby Sparks explores the nature of unbalanced relationships when one person has power to control the other, analysing how difficult relationships between two complex individuals can be. Initially appearing to be an amusing figment of Calvin’s imagination, Ruby becomes a complex, emotional character that is in turns excitable, quirky, needy, moody, disinterested and clingy just like a real life person – essentially an anti-Jennifer Aniston. As the film goes on and the couple’s relationship begins to unravel, the narrative takes a darker turn, exploring the morality of Calvin’s ability to direct Ruby’s actions.

Though ostensibly set in the realms of fantasy, Ruby Sparks is ultimately about how we construct ideas and notions of people we fall in love with based on how we want other people to be, often ignoring who they really are. The film exposes the dangers of attempting to reduce a person down to an imagined ideal.

Highly recommended.

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