Ruby Sparks (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
1Nov/120

Ruby Sparks (2012)

There's been a troubling trend in indie comedies that we need to remedy ourselves of.  It's the manic pixie dream girl, that stereotype which has become so thoroughly engrained in our heads since a short-sighted writer decided to take a stock archetype character and give it a sex.  The term could have started with any number of male characters, think of ones played by Dudley Moore or Peter Sellers, but instead just focuses on a complete unwillingness of male screenwriters or critics to try and craft or understand the opposite sex.

One of the many great insights of Ruby Sparks is the way it plays with the notion of pixie girl as though it's a genuine archetype in the world.  Then, as the reality of creation sets in, we see that it's both in creation and reception that these sexist labels are made in fiction.  The stereotype exists because insecure men did not have the ability to express themselves in the same alpha male aspects as their counterparts, and it's perpetuated because critics still find it's something to read into.

Yes, this is a very reflective film, in some ways needing you to understand how it was prepared for each possible reaction and turning that into three completely different emotional responses.  It's not perfect, but directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are trying for an effective romantic comedy while ripping itself apart in the process.  If you find it too messy, remember that their last film, Little Miss Sunshine, was dealing with indie warts of a different kind and no less messily.

Between this and Being Flynn it's not been a bad movie year for writer characters. Maybe Paul Dano has found his niche.

If you just read a description of Ruby Sparks you may be likely to pass it up as the kind of magical indie film it completely avoids being.  Calvin (Paul Dano, continuing a mutually beneficial partnership with Dayton and Faris) is a successful writer who churned out a wildly successful novel during his sudden escape from his senior year of high school.  He goes to therapy because he's been having difficulty writing a complete novel since his youthful masterpiece.  So, inspired partly by his libido and on a suggestion from his therapist, he starts to write about the kind of girl he wants to meet.  He wakes up one morning and finds Ruby (Zoe Kazan, also the screenwriter) wearing a button-up shirt and no pants, ready to make him eggs.

This isn't explained, and really doesn't need to be, because how many times have you lied to yourself so you can go along with someone who isn't everything you want?  It's just another bit of fiction.  One that the film has a lot of fun playing around with when Calvin's surprisingly pragmatic brother (the very funny Chris Messina) realizes how simultaneously miraculous and pathetic Calvin's situation is.  In a fine bit of sharp satire, it's miraculous that someone so creative can seemingly conjour a whole person out of thin air, and pathetic that she is such a blatant stand-in for everything Calvin's told himself he wants.

Dayton and Faris' film seems steeped in the indie comedy cliches but always sides with Calvin's brother.  Ruby and Calvin's vibrant early sex life, steeped in colorful raves and impromptu sex sessions on pinball machines, loses its color and eventually involves long nights on the couch with her in cloth shorts and he losing patience, all the while all the vibrancy is drained from the background.  That gray grows darker as Calvin goes back to the typewriter to craft a new version of Ruby, and finds each fantasy lacking.

Kazan puts her character through the emotional wringer and perfectly punctuates each of her scenes.

When the darkness finally comes I was surprised at how far the film, and especially star Zoe Kazan, was willing to take the premise.  The exact actions are literary rape, forcing Ruby to do things and behave in whatever way is needed at this very time on his whims.  The moment that Calvin is asking her to be everything is heartbreaking in its implications of so many screenwriters and their audiences by forcing them to directly confront the sexist fantasy they've gorged themselves on for so long.  Kazan risks a lot with her performance in this movie but showcases such an immense range that once I was facing down that horror she was back onscreen in another reinvention.  Thankfully, she ends ready to point everyone toward a much more optimistic path for characters like her who have had a label forced on them.

I was surprised by how much I liked the movie, especially when it broke up the bleaker realizations.  Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas show up as Calvin's mother and her long-time boyfriend, showing how great relationships sometimes look like a mutual fiction but are nonetheless real.  But even with their amusing moments and other potent small roles (I welcome Steve Coogan no matter the form), I was grateful for a film that dealt fairly and responsibly with creator and audience.

A bit more darkness and it could have easily been a horror film, a bit more comedy and it would be a farce.  Instead it treads a very delicate line, asking each one of use to judge the characters on their own terms, not because some writer lumped them all into one basket.

Ruby Sparks (2012)
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Screenplay written by Zoe Kazan.
Starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

Posted by Andrew

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