One of the first things that we learn as movie viewers is to suspend disbelief. Every movie requires this, whether it’s a big-budget action flick like The Avengers or an independent drama with the smallest of budgets like Tiny Furniture. Sooner or later, however, the question becomes: “How much can you can ask of an audience before a film becomes laughable dreck?”
In Ruby Sparks, Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weir-Fields, an author who received accolades for his first work, only to find himself struggling with the pressure of maintaining that success on his second novel. He also has a bit of trouble in the relationship department, continually finding himself the subject of much attention from attractive females, only to then be unable to pull the trigger. At the sage advice of his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould), he puts pen to paper and writes about the woman of his dreams, named Ruby Sparks. Before he knows it, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) is sitting on his couch, his dream girl come to life.
As all Hollywood relationships must go, things couldn’t be better at first. But before too long, arguments creep in and Zoe leaves. It’s at that point that Calvin discovers that he can bring Ruby back into his life, just by writing it out. As a matter of fact, Calvin can make Ruby do any number of things with just a few keystrokes on his computer. In the end, Calvin has to ask himself if this is really what he wants in a relationship.
Kazan wrote the screenplay, it’s safe to say, in the hopes that she could star as Ruby. It’s a shame that she seemed to be more concerned with creating a breakout role for herself than actually spending the time to flesh out that same character. There are so many unanswered questions about the very concept of Ruby that the movie never even bothers to approach, let alone answer, that the entire film begins to feel like a hipster update of Weird Science. All that’s missing is Anthony Michael Hall walking around wearing a pair of panties on his head.
Ruby Sparks is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the team that brought us the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine. In casting Paul Dano in the lead, they have given a role to one of the most interesting actors of his generation, although the role isn’t that complicated. Much in the same way that the film doesn’t bother to examine the concept of Ruby as a magical creature too often, we also aren’t really shown that Dano’s character is actually as romantic as he exclaims in the movie. It’s much easier to buy him as an awkward writer with generic problems finding dates than to accept the idea that he is a tragic figure who is too complex for most women to understand.
One strong point for the film is the host of interesting actors signed on for small parts, such as Annette Bening as Calvin’s mom, and Antonio Banderas as his stepdad. It seems that quite a few accomplished actors signed on for supporting roles here in the hopes that Ruby would become an Oscar favorite for multiple nominations. While anything is possible this early in the year, it’s hard to believe that many voters will even remember this damaged film, one that never comes close to offering the experience that Little Miss Sunshine gave audiences in 2006.
There have been many films that explore the concept of life imitating art. The strength that the classic films in this genre held over Ruby Sparks is that they actually felt the need to explore the rationale behind what was happening on screen. All the audience is given with this movie is an actress’ attempt at hitting it big, with no desire to approach either the magic or science lurking within the character. In the end, Ruby Sparks boils down to a vanity project created by someone without the talents to pull such a thing off. The viewer is left watching a film that posits a character coming to life, rather than giving them a film that has any life in it.