“She doesn’t know that I wrote her”. That’s the dilemma in which novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) finds himself when fictional dream girl Ruby (Zoe Kazan) is made suddenly manifest in his chic LA home. What follows is an insightful exploration of love, identity, and control, and one of the smartest rom-coms released in years.
Transposing the Pygmalion myth to a modern twenty-something romance, writer Zoe Kazan and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) use their magic realist premise to depict a recognisable relationship with a central dysfunction: whatever Calvin writes, Ruby is. (In one moment of supreme irony, she fondly chastises him for being a control freak, but clearly doesn’t know the half of it…).
Less ambitious comedies – The Invention Of Lying; What Women Want; Bruce Almighty – have all touched upon this type of fantasy power imbalance between a man and a woman, but none so intelligently or with so much pathos as Ruby Sparks. In its later stages, the film becomes a Monkey’s Paw-style morality tale about the dangers of wishes coming true, but once again, does so with wit and honesty, not clichés.
It helps that the cast is superb. Elliott Gould, Steve Coogan, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas provide effortlessly strong support as Calvin’s therapist, rival author, mother, and step-father respectively, but it’s the central duo, Dano and Kazan, who elevate the film from light entertainment to thought-provoking drama.
The early stages of Ruby and Calvin’s love affair are like any other: exciting, obsessive and breathless. A montage (edited, naturally, to cool seventies French pop) sees the couple in a heady whirl of dancing, running, kissing and simply moving. A decade since publishing his game-changing American debut at the age of eighteen, Calvin has been immobile, stuck in an aspic of his own neuroses.
As her name promises, Ruby Sparks brings colour and electricity into Calvin’s bare, white home and life. He’s so happy about her arrival that the magical manuscript is locked away with a familiar-sounding declaration that he will never write – and so change – a single thing about her ever again. Is he able to keep his promise? Well, with God-like power just a locked drawer away, could you?
As the mercurial Ruby, Kazan is fantastic. The titular character is one that critiques Hollywood’s infatuation with the so-called manic pixie dream girl, a cute, kooky cipher whose only agency is to help the male protagonist to the next step in his journey. Ruby may have started life on the pages of Calvin’s therapy assignment, but once out of the manuscript, she’s real. So much so that moments of Ruby distraught and unable to trust her instincts or sanity because of Calvin’s tweaks to her personality are deeply affecting, as is a sadistic climactic scene that explores the dark extent of his control over the woman he supposedly loves.
The theme of identity being defined by relationships is handled deftly by the main plot and echoed by the story of Calvin’s mother. Once a polo shirt-wearing, meat barbecuing golf club type and now a hippie mama, Bening’s character has changed wholesale to match that of her man. Though the film’s gender relations provide plenty of discussion fodder, it’s not only women who have their existence defined for them. The motif also finds expression in Calvin’s professional life as his attempts to follow up the first novel are stymied by his having been labelled a prodigy, and in turn, ‘created’ by his literary fame.
In these days of two-hour plus Apatovian comedies, directors Faris and Dayton have turned in a lean film from which there’s no fat to be trimmed. The ending aside (the one sticking point that keeps Ruby Sparks from achieving greatness, and which, if rumour is to be believed, isn’t the conclusion Kazan originally wanted), each scene is essential, and slots together the storytelling with precision and honesty. If only every film in the genre were so good.
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