Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Steve Coogan
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 25 Jul 2012 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 12 Oct 2012 (General release); 2012)
Zoe Kazan’s Ruby Sparks is easily one of 2012’s best screenplays. Underneath its adorable-boy-meets-adorable-girl veneer (with which the film was marketed, unfortunately), Ruby Sparks has as many ideas as Looper, as much unsettling chaos as Cloud Atlas, and much, much smarter romantic humor than The Sessions. Had it been ready in time for Sundance, this story of creativity, self-loathing, love, and possession might have been the toast of the festival, earning the word of mouth to carry it through to awards season. Released, respected, and ignored at the peak of comic-book tentpole season, Ruby Sparks is nonetheless smarter than any other fantasy film this year.
Calvin Weir-Fields (great name, no?) is a famous young novelist who hasn’t published anything since his generation-defining young adult novel. Post-breakup, he lives along in his bookish, modern bachelor pad with his writers’ block and his dog. Then, like many of cinema’s writers, he gets a jolt of inspiration from a dream, and for the first time in years, Calvin is off and running. This is all well and good, but it puts him in a fix: He is writing about a girl name Ruby, and she becomes so real to him that he feels less lonely, and maybe a little bit loved. Kazan doesn’t shy away from the psychological implications of the obsession: Calvin is thrown into psychic disarray when Ruby’s stuff starts appearing in his apartment. Then Ruby herself, less character than human, shows up from out of thin air.
The magical woman from nowhere who saves a man’s psyche is a worn but touching trope, and it’s as old as the cinema, but Kazan breaths new, feminist life into it. When Calvin reveals Ruby to his brother, he reminds Calvin of the amazing power she represents: As long as he keeps her naive about her unusual genesis, Calvin can drastically change Ruby a few sentences at a time, molding her into his ideal woman. And this is where the real meat of the story resides. Their love is molecular and immediate, and Calvin can’t help but experiment with her. For example, he writes that Ruby is madly in love with Calvin, and after some time of uninterrupted affection, he writes away her clinginess. But the smartest thing about the screenplay is that Kazan never reduces Ruby to Calvin’s directions. She is far too complicated—too real!—and her basic faults and insecurities can’t be edited away. In the film’s glorious climax, Calvin reveals his secret, but of course he must prove his power. As Ruby sobs, having lost her whole identity, Calvin sits at his typewriter, magically forcing Ruby to toss herself around the room in a cathartic frenzy.
Ruby Sparks falls into place with the countless recent comedies about male immaturity, but it is the best contemporary film about its effect on women. Calvin is a good guy and a good writer, but his emotional development seems to have stopped with the publication of his debut. He dreams up his ideal woman out of loneliness, but it’s clear that he doesn’t have the maturity or the self-image to know what he’s created. He forms Ruby as his ideal woman; she’s into zombie films, painting, blowjobs, and cooking. But she’s also a mirror reflection of his own problems. She, too, is confused and lost inside a difficult transition to adulthood, looking for a self beyond the superficial. When Calvin discovers this about her—and that his ideal woman is going to be more than trips to the arcade and hot sex—he isn’t mature enough to deal with it. He writes away her problems is now confronted with his own deficiencies, and her disempowerment fills him with guilt. So ultimately, Ruby Sparks is an allegory on the benefits of female independence for woman as well as men.
The gorgeous Kazan is often included in magazine articles listing Hollywood’s notable rising talents, due to her small roles in high-profile awards season films of years past, but her name recognition remains low, perhaps despite being the granddaughter of Oscar winner Elia Kazan of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront fame. It seemed unusual that the in-demand team behind Little Miss Sunshine would plan this minor star’s passion project as their follow-up, but that’s what Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton did. Their belief in the script comes through beautifully in the finish project, and I can’t for the life of me understand why Kazan isn’t getting more attention. Her performance in the title role is as smart and effective as her writing, and “Ruby Sparks” should be considered a showcase for an insightful young artist in complete control of her craft.