by David Lamble
Ruby Sparks is a diabolically clever new film comedy about a young writer who has an anxiety attack over two distinctly different choices for his love life: hit the bars or the Web like a normal person, or solve two problems at once, his empty bed and an irritating writer's block, by imagining the perfect lover, the dream-girl heroine for his long-delayed second novel.
Once upon a time, Calvin (Paul Dano) was considered a literary prodigy, the author of a sensationally popular yet serious novel with a bratty adolescent protagonist. Yeah, sort of Catcher in the Rye. Fortunately, Zoe Kazan's original script and Dano's nimble performance suggest nothing like a younger J.D. Salinger.
Calvin shares rather sterile-appearing digs – a townhouse with a bleached-white interior as formidably blank as the sheets of paper in his old-fashioned portable typewriter – with a small, pee-shy mutt.
"Scotty pees like a girl, he interrupts my writing. I walk him and meet people, but Scotty gets scared when people pet him."
In the decade since his early fame, Calvin has produced only a small novella with a title that embarrasses him not only for its pretentious ring (Breakfast for Dinner) but also for the stale air it gives off of an author who's aging without having lived. But as Calvin confesses sadly to his older married brother (Chris Messina), the impression is pitifully close to the truth.
"People only want to sleep with me because they've read my book in high school."
"Seriously, you don't even get laid in your dreams. How sad!"
Challenged by his therapist (Elliott Gould) to write his way out of his malaise, Calvin pounds away at his portable, imagining one Ruby Sparks (screenwriter, actor and Dano's real-life girlfriend, Zoe Kazan), a flirty, impetuous lass from small-town Ohio. Rather too pleased with himself, Calvin freaks out when, descending from his bedroom one morning, he finds Ruby herself, casually attired in one of his old shirts, eating cereal and acting like nothing is amiss. Calvin ratchets his normally neurotic disposition to hysterical red alert.
"It's really happening! They're going to hospitalize me."
Once he realizes that others can see Ruby and he adjusts to the novel sensation of having his libidinous needs met, Calvin's nerdy facade is gradually replaced by his inner control freak. Soon he starts resenting the perky, outgoing Ruby's desire to meet his embarrassingly hippie mom (Annette Bening) and stepdad (Antonio Banderas), and starts to imagine a more cloistered life.
"You don't have any friends."
"The only person I want to be in a relationship with is you."
"You don't get to decide what I do!"
"Want to bet?"
(Photo: Merrick Morton)
As diverting as Ruby Sparks is as a feminist Groundhog Day, the movie really moves up several notches as Ruby and Calvin discover to what dark lengths he will and won't go to maintain his absolute power over Ruby's growth as a person. He has power over whether she can be considered separate from the disturbingly infantile needs of his authorial inner child.
Gay boys have one thing in common with Calvin: a seemingly hapless ability to project feelings we consider love onto total strangers. Ruby Sparks transcends the cleverness of its central conceit to ask profound questions about how autonomous two strong-willed individuals can ever be.
Credit co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the brilliant husband/wife team behind the savage 2006 satire/ensemble comedy Little Miss Sunshine, with giving Kazan's original theme full exploration, even when doing so took the film way beyond the boundaries of Judd Apatow-like rude male fantasy.
Dano and Kazan, with bursts of energy only possible in one's 20s, provide a generation of couples – hooked up, "living in sin," possibly staying together only until they've worked off their college loans – with a witty, wise-beyond-their-years model for imagining a kind of gender equality that once seemed impossibly idealistic. Screenwriter/actor Kazan and directors Dayton and Faris spent a day at a Nob Hill hostelry to explain the magic behind Ruby Sparks.
David Lamble: It's almost like a ghost story turned on its head, a figment of Calvin's creative imagination. Where did the idea for Ruby Sparks come from?
Zoe Kazan: Like for Calvin, where Ruby comes to him in a dream, I similarly had a strange bout of inspiration. I was walking home from work, and I saw a mannequin discarded in a dumpster. I thought it was a person, and it scared me. It made me flash to the Pygmalion myth of a sculptor whose statue comes to life because he loves it so much. I thought of the sculptor in his dark studio turning his head and seeing the statue move. And I woke up one morning with the seeds of this in my head.
It was Paul [Dano] who discovered it was for both of you, right?
Yes, he said, "You're writing this for us."
Had you realized that before?
No. But I was only like five pages in. I tend to show him as I go along.
Ruth Gordon and Garsin Kanin wrote together until they discovered they couldn't do that and preserve their marriage.
Ruth Gordon is so totally my hero! But Paul and I are not writing together, that's the difference. I don't think I'd write well with a partner. But having that person to check in with and bounce ideas off has been wonderful.
Zoe Kazan's script is so delightfully original.
Jonathan Dayton: We worked with Zoe for nine months trying to simplify and focus the love story, to free her as a writer, so when it came time to act in it –
Valerie Faris: When Ruby shows up in Calvin's life, it's absolutely real, and we're not really thinking how she got there.
There's the dark moment late in the film where he displays a sadistic side, fucking with her, so to speak. It's a side that any of us might manifest in such a situation.
Faris: He says, "I want to make her happy without making her happy."
What was the funniest moment on set?
Faris: Because we're shooting digitally, Paul likes to try different things by doing a series –
Dayton: Where you don't call take, but immediately start the scene again. He would do seven takes in a row.
Faris: He was like a bull who kept charging at the cape.