Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Premise: A novelist (Paul Dano) suffering from writer’s block is so taken by a fictional female character that she manifests herself and becomes his girlfriend.
What Works: Ruby Sparks is a smart and sweet story about the relationship between fantasy and reality. The film has a goofy premise, much like Stranger Than Fiction or Being John Malkovich, but it does not dwell on the intricacies of the concept and instead focuses on playing out the story. Ruby Sparks is a film about the way in which male writers and men in general tend to think about women; specifically, it is about the way men idealize and mythologize women. Paul Dano plays a writer who had great success early in his career but now suffers under the weight of expectation. He conceives of Ruby as someone who reassures him of his own virtuosity and empowers him to write. Their relationship starts off innocuous enough as Dano’s character is validated by her affection and he has his social needs met. But as the relationship goes on it gradually becomes more complex. Despite the generally upbeat tone of the movie there is an underlying darkness to it. Dano’s character discovers that Ruby will become whatever he writes and the novelist begins to change her to suit his immediate needs, treating her increasingly like an object for his gratification. These scenarios provide actors Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan with some great opportunities for their performance. The showier of the two roles is Kazan who is able to have fun with the exaggerated changes in her character but ultimately this is about Dano’s character and how his attempt to control everything ultimately makes both of them miserable. For most of the film Dano plays it evenly as his character resists the more pigheaded implications of his power over Ruby and this puts the viewer on his side. But as it becomes clearer that the relationship is about him–as opposed to about the two of them–the film moves into some serious territory. The story has a few departures in the middle as Dano’s character takes Ruby to meet his family and these nicely flesh out the flaws of Dano’s character. His family models the possibilities of romantic happiness but Dano’s character rejects them because he spends his time reading and living in a fantasy world. The failure of Dano’s character to accept the imperfections in life and his attempts to micromanage his life and lives of those around him are consistent with the life of a storyteller but also speak to issues of male privilage. In the process of telling his story, the filmmakers of Ruby Sparks critique the way women are treated in romantic comedies and expose how stories can give us unrealistic expectations about our lives and the people in them.
What Doesn’t: Ruby Sparks does suffer from being a little too sweet and adorable for its own good. Actors Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan are the epitome of the cute young couple and for viewers who either aren’t on board with their relationship or find it repulsively cute will struggle to get into the movie. The script also lets Dano’s character off the hook in the conclusion. By the end of the movie he is very awful to Ruby, so much so that the filmmakers abuse the viewer’s goodwill with his selfishness. The point is that Dano’s character has to learn to respect the wishes of others and he does that but at some level he’s really coming to a very basic understanding of human relationships that most socialized people ought to achieve by the end of their teenage years.
DVD extras: Featurettes and trailers.
Bottom Line: Ruby Sparks is a fine movie. It is funny in an offbeat way but it is also smart and insightful and a rebuff to the way many romantic comedies regard women and human relationships.
Episode: #421 (January 6, 2013)