Ruby Sparks (film)
I wanted to like this film so very much. It has been too long since Little Miss Sunshine and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris certainly deserved a free visit* after the masterful dose of quirkiness from that film.
The premise—a writer bringing a character to life from the page and interacting with her—had a whimsy I thought Dayton and Faris could really work with, and the trailer looked promisingly full of writer jokes. Someone also mentioned a surprise ending. Goody, I thought, something refreshing at last. It won’t be something lame like he stops writing about her and she ends up being a real person. And yet the most surprising thing about this ‘surprise’ ending was that it was no surprise at all.
First I’d like to say a few choice words about the good parts of this film. The performances were excellent. The rather diverse (from Annette Bening to Antonio Banderas to Steve Coogan in support) ensemble worked well and the two leads, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, had great chemistry as a duo. Zoe Kazan had the light-hearted kookiness of that other Z girl, Zooey Deschanel, but played her role with more vivacity.
If seen as a journey for Dano’s Calvin, the film works well. We get a sense of who he is because when he stops ‘writing’ her, Ruby is a foil for him: she enjoys a weekend with his family while the distance he keeps from his mother and her partner couldn’t be more clear, his solitude is more stark against her easy friendliness and his discomfort with writer’s block (his first book was a bestseller and he hasn’t written anything as hefty since) is played out against her burgeoning creativity as an artist.
Calvin writes Ruby because he wants to change all of those things. He wants to be emotionally engaged with someone, he wants company and he wants to write freely. When he gives Ruby up, he gets all of that in the most metafictitious sense: he writes a novel about a girl who springs from a writer’s imagination, which unblocks him and leads him to meet a ‘real’ Ruby. If you love it set it free, et cetera.
The other great thing about this film is that it is genuinely warm and funny. There aren’t a lot of one-liners, but it is generally good humoured and anything that can be played for laughs is woven in without malice.
Where the film falls down is in the idea of Ruby herself. The film is called Ruby Sparks so we want Ruby to be more than a figment, then we want her to be more than an unsurprising surprise ending but she never gets there. Curiously Kazan, who wrote the script and starred as Ruby Sparks, didn’t think to push the character further. So Ruby as a foil and an idea = good; Ruby as her own being = not well realised.
On the way home my partner and I thought of better endings for the film, or at least endings that weren’t as predictable, things like Calvin’s ex, who is also a writer and who we meet at his agent’s party, wrote him but lost control of her own creation, which is why he ends up being more successful than her. Or, it was a magic typewriter. Or something about Calvin’s mother also being a creative type.
The other factor that disappointed me was that the directors didn’t play enough with the story in a story in a story format (Calvin’s novel, which was Calvin’s life with Ruby, which was the film). I mean, that’s a meta meta fiction and an opportunity lost. If you want to see a good story in a story in a story, go rent Stranger than Fiction (2006).
Film rating: 6/10 – fair expectations, but disappointingly predictable
Enjoyment rating: 7/10
* Free visit: where you see a film because of a certain director/writer/actor even if you don’t really know what it’s about, because you enjoyed the last one of theirs so much. When you have a favourite director/screenwriter/actor and will see anything of theirs no matter what the reviews, it’s called a magnet.