“Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real.”
On the surface, Ruby Sparks could be mistaken for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl biopic no one asked for. In case you’re not familiar with this particular cinematic archetype, MPDG derisively describes any unabashedly artsy, quirky young female character that inevitably brightens the life of a brooding, young male protagonist. However, the quote at the start of this review only hints at the fact that this whimsical romantic comedy isn’t afraid to stare down the ugly side of relationships.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) became a literary sensation when he was 19, but now it’s 10 years later and he’s suffering from writer’s block. The pressure to recapture professional lightning in a bottle has also made his personal life a mess. The only people Calvin interacts with on a regular basis are his concerned older brother Harry (Chris Messina), his therapist, and his dog. After Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) assigns a writing exercise designed to provide positive reinforcement, Calvin creates a beautiful fictional character named Ruby, who brings life back into his work. The only problem is that Calvin’s work also appears to bring life to Ruby (Zoe Kazan) because she suddenly appears in Calvin’s home and behaves is if they’re in a real relationship.
The movie — and Harry — has a bit of fun with the idea that Calvin is losing his mind, but the sooner you can accept there will be no practical explanation for Ruby’s existence, the easier it’ll be to submit to the film’s charms and absorb its philosophy on life and love. (Kinda like you had to do with Stranger than Fiction.) Ruby Sparks also bears a passing resemblance to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which had Jeff Daniels’ matinee idol step off the screen to woo Mia Farrow.
Dano, reuniting with his married Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, often recalls Allen’s famous screen persona with his performance as an insecure young writer who is unlucky in love. His Calvin, however, is less of a nebbish and more outwardly emotional; he springs to life when he talks about Ruby — “I’m writing to spend time with her” — but he can also be thunderously petty during the film’s darker moments. Calvin (our romantic hero) is downright unlikable at times, and I admire Dano for not softening the blow.
Of course, a ton of credit also goes to the screenplay by Kazan, daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha), and granddaughter of legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront). I haven’t even mentioned that Dano and Kazan are coupled in real life, and the pair has a pleasing, unforced chemistry. The actress gives an incredibly sly performance as she creates a fully-formed character out of (literally) a half-baked idea. Ruby seems to be the perfect girl for a guy in his late 20’s — she’s into video games, zombie movies and sex in public — but Kazan never treats her like a contrivance, displaying all the care and genuine affection for the character that Calvin simply isn’t equipped to provide.
Kazan’s screenplay only hints at the crude places a story about a guy who has the power make a girl do whatever he wants could’ve gone, but still has some fun with the concept. (Ruby can suddenly speak a foreign language; she also becomes overly depressed without Calvin and obnoxiously overjoyed to be with him.) More importantly, this seemingly frothy rom-com has some serious things to say about the control one person can exert over another in a relationship and the perils of getting exactly what you wish for.
Ruby Sparks clocks in at a relatively spry 104 minutes, but there were still a few sequences that felt flabby and a bit redundant. (The scenes where Ruby is depressed or effervescent each drag on for too long.) Though Messina is strong as Calvin’s brother (the only other person who knows Ruby’s true origins) and Alia Shawkat is funny as an overeager groupie of Calvin’s, the rest of the talented supporting cast is mostly squandered.
Gould could’ve played his therapist role in his sleep, Annette Bening is wildly overqualified as Calvin’s hippie goddess of a mother (this sort of role has become a cliché), and Antonio Banderas — always a lively screen presence — is underused as the vibrant stepdad Calvin hates for no good reason. Steve Coogan wrings some laughs out of the douche-y writer he plays (a possible/evil future version of Calvin), but he only pops up for a few minutes.
Still, Ruby Sparks is the rare contemporary romantic comedy that is actually romantic, funny and has something interesting to say about the state of relationships.
Ruby Sparks is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 32 mbps. The strength of this video presentation may not jump off the screen in an obvious way, but we’re still talking about a very impressive transfer. There is extraordinary clarity and sharpness, especially in the scenes that take place in Calvin’s modern-style house. Exterior scenes — particularly during any of Calvin and Ruby’s dates, as well as a road trip to Big Sur — display a subtle, film-like texture, despite the fact that Ruby Sparks was shot digitally. Black levels are strong and colors are nicely vivid, whether the film is going for a natural vibe or portraying Ruby in one of Calvin’s dreams.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is mostly concerned with delivering the dialogue, which comes through loud and clear. There’s not an awful lot going on here, but the rear speakers still provide some immersion during busy scenes in a gym or at a swanky house party. Nick Urata’s jaunty, evocative score also benefits from the solid audio presentation. Pretty good balance overall between dialogue, music and sound effects.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Behind the Story: (4:07) Kazan, Dano and directors Dayton and Faris briefly summarize the film and its ideas. Not really a deep dive, and this plays like a movie trailer with their comments spliced in.
Real-Life Couples: Co-stars and Directors: (2:56) Dano notes that the married directors had a strong connection to Kazan’s script and to a project starring/produced by a fellow real-life couple. Messina points out that everything could’ve easily fallen apart if it had been handled by he wrong set of couples.
Be Careful What You Wish For: (3:47) Kazan articulates the film’s themes, including how challenging it is to love all of someone (not just the convenient parts), and the perils of one person having too much control.
Getting to Know the Cast: (3:39) Directors Dayton and Faris talk about their love of ensemble casts after making Little Miss Sunshine. Dano and Kazan obviously get their due, but this mini-doc also highlights the notable supporting players.
Los Angeles: The Other Character: (3:12) Kazan states that the human-size Los Angeles she loves isn’t depicted on screen very often. Dayton adds that L.A. often doubles as a bunch of different parts of the world, so it was refreshing to have the city play itself. Also highlights each of the sprawling houses in the film.
This Blu-ray is another fine-looking release from Fox, though I wish the special features for what is obviously a very personal project had been a little less generic.
I liked this movie quite a bit, but if you’re looking for a lighthearted flick to pop in during your next Date Night, you might want to look somewhere else. Ruby Sparks has plenty of fun moments, but there’s no question it examines the less glamorous side of love.