Apologies for the lack of content this week. I had some big articles I've been working on inspired by various anime and manga series. In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, their subject matter did not seem appropriate. The pieces will go up eventually, albeit in heavily revised forms that address but do not dwell on violence as metaphor.
Calvin Weir-Fields has a problem. It's been years since his debut novel cemented him as a literary genius at the age of 19. He's written nothing significant since. Short stories and essays can only stave off publisher angst so long. Under the suggestion of his therapist, Calvin writes a story about the kind of girl who would be liked by his anxiety-stricken dog. That girl is Ruby Sparks, who Calvin mysteriously turns into the living, breathing love of his life who will do anything he writes her to do.
Zoe Kazan pulls double duty as screenwriter and leading lady of Ruby Sparks. Her debut screenplay is a clever, often dark, romantic fantasy about the power of love and self-identity. Calvin is nothing without Ruby, but Calvin doesn't have enough of his own identity separated from work to know what to do with Ruby. The wild and enthusiastic woman he creates develops free will because she herself acts as an excuse for writer's block. She reaches self-actualization, but Calvin doesn't want independence; he wants Ruby.
It takes a special kind of director to not make a story about a man creating and eventually controlling a woman turn into a misogynistic nightmare. Good thing we have Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the co-directors of Little Miss Sunshine, to guide us through a dark and silly world. Dayton and Faris do not judge Calvin, his macho brother Harry who encourages him to play with Ruby, his free-spirited mother and step-father, or even Ruby for what they choose in this world. They merely guide us through a fantastic tale and leave the rest to us.
Ruby Sparks earns its fantasy conceit by establishing a believable universe. Paul Dano finds this core truth to Calvin, who could easily play as a Woody Allen caricature. This is a young man who achieved the pinnacle of success most writers spend a lifetime striving for on his first outing. He earned his independence and reputation by chance, not by hard work and determination. Now he's drifting through life with no goal and no routine to fall back on.
The film wisely makes a few strong references to the life and career of J.D. Salinger, from literal name-dropping to Calvin's indifference toward answering questions about his seminal work. Instead of a whiny prodigy, we have a clear picture of a young artist afraid of not living up to himself. It doesn't seem like such a bad fate to have one hit book, but we're not the ones living with the reality that the next thing we put out will be called a failure because it's not as good as the first thing we ever did.
Ruby Sparks does have a very dark undertone that erupts in the climax. That is one of the most awkward and uncomfortable scenes I've seen in years. The parallels to the reveal of the talent in Little Miss Sunshine are there because of the directors. Dayton and Faris try to play it the same way. The problem is that this stark turn into very different material is tragic. The approach leaves you waiting for a punchline that never comes. A sense of tension builds not from the editing or the direction, but the sense of dread built by the premise of the film itself. Kazan and Dano give masterful performances in a scene that feels completely out of place in this film.
That climax is a big sticking point in the overall film. There is such a gentle and logical arc to the story that this sudden shift at the apex is unwelcome. Ruby Sparks earns a dark twist because it's been brewing the whole time. It just deserved far better execution than static cuts between two characters and moody scoring.
Thoughts on Ruby Sparks? Sound off below.