I love Ruby Sparks. I also love Ruby Sparks. The former statement is in regards to a powerfully moving film from first time feature writer Zoe Kazan. The latter is the profound character portrayed perfectly by Zoe Kazan. It’s her words and her performance that make Ruby Sparks one of the best films of the year.
“If it’s so good, why haven’t I heard of it?”
Fair question. To be honest, I’m not sure. Ruby Sparks certainly doesn’t have monumental star power, but lead actor Paul Dano is an Oscar-nominee who’s face should be familiar to most moviegoers by now (There Will Be Blood, Knight and Day, Cowboys and Aliens). Kazan is a relative newbie, but co-stars Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas should have been enough to warrant a release wider than 261 theaters (it’s widest in it’s 13+ week run).
The film also marks the directorial return of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the filmmaking duo behind the mega-hit Little Miss Sunshine. It’s been six years since the indie ensemble dramedy stormed the Academy Awards and walked away with two trophies and a Best Picture nomination. Was a six-year hiatus two-long to wait? Does their last movie not warrant a wider release for their new one?
Apparently not, but that’s enough speculation. Let’s talk about what the movie is artistically and not what it could (or should) have been commercially. Ruby Sparks tells the comedic, compelling, and dramatically complex tale of Calvin Weir-Fields, a struggling young writer who’s terrified of social situations despite early life success and a schedule that demands many public appearances.
After accepting a writing assignment from his shrink, Calvin writes about his dream girl. Literally. He sees a beautiful woman with bright sunlight draped over her shoulders in a dream, and he begins writing her story as if she’s his own girlfriend. Funny thing is, soon she is is girlfriend.
Ruby shows up in his apartment the following morning, and events both hilarious and upsetting unfold from there. Ruby Sparks isn’t the flight of whimsy depicted in the previews—it delves into issues like gender roles, egotism, respect, and the oddest, most haunting example of honesty I’ve ever seen in a romance. It has its light-hearted moments, as well—and these keep the movie from being an unnecessary trudge through a struggling relationship—but the third act’s unexpected (yet fitting), somber (yet loving) turn is what sticks with you after the credits roll.
Much credit should be given to Kazan for handling the tonal shifts with a steady hand. Each development is set up subtly and convincingly. Ruby’s arrival is marked by the random appearance of women’s clothes throughout the apartment. Calvin’s uneasiness chronicled from the onset and only subsides after some shallow reasoning from affable brother (Chris Messina).
This script, which is full of an incredible amount of originality, is comfortably tight, taking the time needed to thoroughly establish the characters in this character-driven piece. From Calvin, to his brother, to Ruby, to Calvin’s parents, to his rivals, each and every person plays an important role in the film and none are as one-dimensional as they could be in lesser works.
Antonio Banderas’ Mort is a prime example. As Calvin’s earth-centric father-in-law, Mort is confident in his way of living despite obvious resentment from Calvin. We’ve seen this guy before. Step-fathers are an easy and obvious target for ridicule that infest even great films (I’m looking at you, Moneyball). Instead of making him an obvious buffoon, however, Kazan creates a quirky man whose confidence stems from his love for his wife.
Kazan excels in the exhibition of her character, as well. Working with boyfriend Dano had to help with the chemistry, but I’ve seen her do this before. She brings an impressive amount of passion to her roles, a trait I first picked up on in the indie drama Happythankyoumoreplease. The range she displayed in that film—a mediocre film, at that—proved she had what it takes to move on to bigger and better things. We’ve known Dano has the chops for a while now, and he shows a few new tricks in Ruby Sparks.
This, though, is Kazan’s show. Everyone else is just there to offer help.
Ideally, this would have applied to the disc’s special features, as well. The Blu-ray edition of Ruby Sparks is a good news/bad news deal. The good news is there are six bonus features. The bad news is they collectively make up about 20 minutes of material, and none are longer than four minutes individually.
Each featurette is done in your basic format. Half of it is clips from the movie, while the other half shows the stars and filmmakers in interviews. There are a few good quotes mixed in, but nothing revelatory. Most markedly missing, though, is an in depth discussion with Ms. Kazan. As writer and star of the film, her thoughts are the ones we’re really desperate to hear, but we only get a few snippets of them. She’s cut off by a clip or a song before she can really get going, and we’re left wanting the rest of the interview to play out.