Sunday, 14 October 2012

Ruby Sparks Review


Reading other reviews for Ruby Sparks, it’s surprising to see just how many critics have lazily applied the same cookie-cutter template to Zoe Kazan’s feature that the author and lead actress wishes to dismantle. Short-circuit terminology – “fantasy rom-com”, “off-kilter indie dramedy” and such like are thrown around readily in press releases and film section articles, threatening to paint this film as something it’s not. This whole process likely isn’t helped by the fact that Ruby Sparks was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the married pair behind that go-to “life-affirming” indie feature, Little Miss Sunshine. That whole mid-noughties, accessible quirk (oh god let me vomit) is there if you’re looking for it, but in doing so you’re really limiting the scope of what Ruby Sparks achieves. Influenced by the likes of Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufman, Ruby Sparks is less some whimsical romance than it is a study of both the power of art to circumscribe and reduce reality, and of in turn how often people attempt to write those close to them as something more befitting to their own needs.

 Ten years on from the novel that made him a literary phenomenon, 29 year old Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling with long term writer’s block, and a resounding case of loneliness. Trading in on the success of that debut work, Calvin spends his days free of work with only the company of his dog Scotty and brother Harry (Chris Messina) giving any real colour to his routine. When his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) suggests that, rather than try to write anything meaningful, Calvin simply write an account of someone who cherishes the insipid Scotty in spite of his faults, the young author dreams of one Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), a woman who quickly becomes both his muse and imaginary soul mate. When Ruby one day materialises in Calvin’s house, the author’s self indulgent fantasy becomes a reality. But Ruby’s burgeoning personality, once made real, soon begins to press against the limitations of Calvin’s writing.

 Kazan’s script, in allowing for Ruby’s character to evolve once given a greater playground to move within, offers a deconstruction of the Manic Dream Pixie Girl more comprehensive and “real” than that offered in Dano’s earlier feature Gigantic, where it remained ambiguous whether Deschanel’s character was to be read as a refutation of this trope or merely a more extreme spin upon it. The growth of Ruby, and how Calvin struggles with this and the power he holds in re-writing her limitations, is the real draw of this film, exploring as it does both the onanistic nature of writing and the friction caused in relationships when people work to be recognised as more than just an extension of the partner’s own consciousness. We do not place such constraints upon our friendships, so why do we obsess so much over the face our loves project to us and the world around us? In a sense, as much as Ruby Sparks is a celebration of the creative process, it is also a critique of just how destructive a role art can play in altering our expectations of simple, every-day life and its expansion beyond the condensed delight of a two-hour narrative.

 I was never a huge fan of Little Miss Sunshine, finding it unnecessarily off-beat and self-absorbed, criticisms which cannot be levelled against Ruby Sparks. Here, Dayton and Faris’ approach feels far more cinematic; their slightly bombastic touches gelling well with the fears of inadequacy and need for control stemming from Dano’s deftly handled characterisation of Calvin. Dano’s skills as a lead have certainly grown since Gigantic, and it’s extremely pleasing to see the actor tackle meatier material again after a spout of rather anaemic supporting roles. The chemistry and in turn tension between him and Kazan packs a strong punch for anyone who might think “I’ve been there,” amplified by Nick Urata’s rather fraught score. This is intelligent, emotional cinema that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty tackling the frustrations of relationships whilst still firmly positing the need to connect.