*** Warning ‘ere be spoilers ***
Twenty-eight year old Zoe Kazan is the ‘real’ star of the charming indie romance Ruby Sparks. She may not be the name everyone is talking about yet, even after appearing in several films, though her feisty temperament, quirky cuteness and fierce ambition – not to mention her lineage (her grandfather was Elia Kazan) may soon change that. She has, nonetheless, written a clever, enjoyable and very telling comedy. In this, her debut as screenwriter, where she also plays the titular role as the object of desire of the brilliant young novelist Calvin, (Paul Dano, her real life partner) who we find in the opening sequence struggling to begin his anticipated second book, enters the film not like a regular character, but rather as a fiction of Calvin’s own imagination. In other words he literally creates her through his writing or rather his typewriter to be exact and has, effectively, absolute control over her.
The premise is, of course, deceptively simple, and evoked many times before. The idealised ‘other’ to put it in pyschoanalytic terms, works so often in the cinema, to re-define the character to what is not seen evidently, but rather to show what’s really inside. Besides, if shown well this ‘other’ adds exponentially to the film, by casting another totally against the protaganist. Cue the myriad of examples, Tyler in Fight Club to pic an easy one. Here in Ruby Sparks, however, the dial set to magic, or Hipster Magic to be precise. But while, it’s superficially a pleasing film, the characters look and feel the part of a contemporary mood, it’s a film that throws in some ‘meta’ challenges to subvert the ultimate male fantasy. Kazan, perceptively, shows that the dream can very easily become the ultimate nightmare.
To complete the task of realising Ruby and Calvin’s world, Little Miss Sunshine directors and also life partners, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, give the film that magic glowing quality, by setting it appropriately in sunny California. The spotlessly white modernist house high in the Hollywood Hills is the perfect isolationist refuge for the socially awkward anal-retentive writer to tussle with his next opus after the premature success of his ground breaking first. Early on the mood is ,as you would expect, uptight, recalling the neurotic temperament of Woody Allen, though it’s much less comical and pithy. The growing anxiety and Calvin’s loveless life are topics of conversation with his analyst, a nice cameo by the legendary Eliot Gould by the way, who instructs him to write about the girl that’s been recently appearing in his dream. Lo and behold Ruby thus appears, fully realised and procedes to take Calvin through the emotional rollercoaster of a relationship drawing out his inhibtions and insecurities. There is an obligatory Meet the Parents moment with Antonio Banderas and Annette Bening, playing California free spirits which again is more to reinforce Calvin’s uptighness than any real narrative arc. What it remains mostly is the increasing darkness the film touches on as Kazan begins her subverting of fantasy. A more potent film might have focused more on this, but it politely finds the resolution in keeping with the sunny disposition of the overall film.
It might not stick together entirely once the cat is out of the bag, nor, thankfully is overly sentimental for those seeking a rom com, Ruby Sparks is a fun film and signals the beginning of a promising writing career for Zoe Kazan. It’s her movie and she does it proud.
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Zoe Kazan
Stars: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening
Runtime: 104 min