Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine)
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould
Ruby Sparks — the second feature from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame — is a film of great charm and something more. It’s one of those films for which I didn’t in the least mind showing up for a 9 a.m. press screening. I’d do it again (though a more civilized hour would be preferable). It’s also one of those films with a premise that could so easily have gone wrong and miraculously never does. In fact, I spent most of the picture waiting for it to screw up — and was delighted when it didn’t. It took its fanciful notion of a literary creation that comes to life into darker corners than I expected — and even then avoided every opportunity to paint itself into a corner.And, goodness knows, it has opportunities aplenty to do exactly that.
Paul Dano (who continues to impress me) plays Calvin, a young writer who struck gold — critical and commercial — with his first book, a work written when he was barely out of high school. Yet apart from some short stories, he’s been unable to produce anything substantial ever since. (Are there echoes of the fact that it’s been six years since Dayton and Faris broke into the world of feauture films with Little Miss Sunshine?) His social and romantic life are in much of the same dreadfully neutral state. Judging by his antiseptically white, completely impersonal house — itself a kind of blank sheet of paper — his life has become a vast expanse of nothingness. All that’s about to change though, when his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) gives him a writing assignment — one that doesn’t have to be good. Through this and a series of dreams, he creates and elaborates on his dream girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay and is Dano’s real life girlfriend). Imagine his surprise — even after some of her personal belongings start mysteriously showing up in his house — when he finds her living with him.
At first, he thinks this is some Harvey-like hallucination. Then he discovers that other people can see her, too. Somehow (and the film wisely never attempts an explanation) he has created his ideal woman — for real. Moreover, he discovers that anything he writes about her immediately manifests itself. The idea, of course, is not exactly new since it dates back to Pygmalion and Galatea. Even Calvin’s eventual and inevitable discovery that this level of control doesn’t make for actual love isn’t much different from John Barrymore’s Svengali realizing that his hypnotic mastery of Trilby’s (Marian Marsh) affections is “only Svengali talking to himself” in the film Svengali (1931). What is different, fresh and unusual is where the film goes with this — not only how far it goes, but how it ultimately affects both Calvin and his creation. That’s what makes Ruby Sparks something rather special.
The film may not be perfect — aspects of the setup start straying into Indie 101 territory — but it overcomes its problems pretty early on. It’s also not likely to be the sensational crowd-pleaser that the overrated (including by me) Little Miss Sunshine was. But all in all, I think this is the better film — stronger, more controlled, less pandering to generic tropes. It’s charming, touching, frequently very funny and thoughtful — qualities you don’t find every day. And qualiies that ought to be treasured. Rated R for language, including some sexual reference, and for some drug use.