Film Review: Calvin and the Real Girl – “Ruby Sparks” Comes to Life
Ruby Sparks is more than a sweetly moving love story with a happy ending; to their credit, the filmmakers add some disturbingly nightmarish edges to its Pygmalion meets Frankenstein plotline.
Ruby Sparks. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. At selected screen throughout New England.
By Glenn Rifkin
Zoe Kazan, the writer and star of Ruby Sparks, a welcome romantic comedy with a pulse, has clearly chosen a different creative purview than her celebrated grandfather, director Elia Kazan. Ruby Sparks, after all, proffers a fantastical screenplay that’s as far removed from the gritty realism of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire as one can imagine. Grandpa is one tough act to follow, and Zoe has chosen wisely to plumb an alternative genre.
But the movie’s whimsy does nothing to diminish the remarkable duel accomplishment achieved here by Kazan, whose charming turn in this magical fantasy is one of the film season’s most notable performances. Paired with her real life boyfriend Paul Dano, Kazan breathes beguiling life into what could have been yet another tepid, escapist daydream.
In fact, Ruby Sparks, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the duo whose 2006 Little Miss Sunshine was a huge indie hit, is more than a sweetly moving love story with a happy ending; to their credit, the filmmakers add some disturbingly nightmarish edges to its Pygmalion meets Frankenstein plotline. Calvin (Paul Dano), a 29-year-old novelist, is paralyzed by the mixed blessing of monstrous early success. His first novel, penned at the age of 19, was a literary and commercial blockbuster, the book compared to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, its author saddled with the weighty label of genius wunderkind.
The money he earns from royalties keeps him ensconced in an expensive but coldly vacant Hollywood manse, and he remains a sought-after celebrity author at supercilious literary soirees. But Calvin’s dalliance with considerable fame and fortune at an early age has left him in a state of perpetual ennui. He reaped the rewards of his devil’s bargain with the high life but now, a decade later, he is trapped in a lonely and increasingly uninspiring present. Long-term therapy has done little to alleviate two tons of writer’s block.
What he desires more than inspiration is someone with whom he can fill in the empty spaces. When his therapist, played to neurotic perfection by Elliot Gould, suggests that Calvin write a one-page essay about someone who likes his dog, Scotty, he reluctantly agrees. A vivid dream about meeting a pretty, young woman in the park who proclaims her affection for Scotty inspires Calvin to write again. Seated at his manual typewriter, he begins to tap out a vivid novel featuring a dream girl named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). So intense is his affection for his own creation that Ruby emerges from the pages into Calvin’s kitchen, an unexpected stranger who quickly insinuates herself into his life and heart. Sure, it’s a stretch, but the suspension of disbelief here is painless and inviting, made palatable by the strong, engaging performances by Dano and Kazan.
Presuming he is losing his mind, Calvin brings in his brother and confidante Harry (Chris Messina), who has long been his steadfast reality check. When Harry actually sees Ruby, Calvin realizes that he is not reliving Harvey but has conjured up a Real Girl. By the mere act of creating and embellishing her character on the page, Calvin conjures Ruby into reality. . . . . his own deeply desired reality. To overcome Harry’s cynicism, he types that Ruby speaks French and voila, she moves around the kitchen conversing in perfect francais. “On behalf of all men, I beg you not to waste this opportunity,” Harry implores, suggesting any manner of kinky behavior be written into this otherworldly bargain.
Dano, whose quirky portrayals of slightly off-kilter characters is epitomized in his nearly wordless performance in Little Miss Sunshine, gives a winning portrayal of a gifted but troubled soul trapped in an emotional time warp. His love for Ruby grows quickly and intensely in both a comic and poignant manner. But is she a true Aphrodite or merely a narcissistic self-expression gone haywire? Dano’s body language and facial expressions, ranging from bewilderment to anxiety, evoke some of the movie’s best comedic moments, but they also evoke the disturbing flickers of angst at the edges of depression.
The raw and eruptive love Calvin feels for his own creation evolves into an inevitable mix of worry, jealousy, boredom, sorrow, and even cruelty. As his love deepens, Calvin stops writing and allows Ruby to evolve as her own person. When she displays a yearning for new friends and varied experiences—in other words, to live an independent life—Calvin finds that he cannot set this shadowy piece of himself free. He commences to write again, this time trying in vain to craft his perfect mate. At this point, Kazan’s evocative screenplay climbs out onto a few potent ledges that leave the audience squirming uneasily, laughter becoming problematic once Calvin morphs into a brutal puppeteer. The takeaway from Ruby Sparks could be simplified into a “be careful what you ask for” warning, but Kazan’s script probes more deeply than that into the neurotic needs and desires that shape (sometimes against our will) the search for a perfect love. Even if it were possible to create the soul-mate of our dreams, the price may be too high to pay.
Dano’s performance, his strongest since his turn as preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, displays versatile acting chops that promise much more from this talented young, star. Annette Bening, as Calvin’s liberated, bohemian mother, and Antonio Banderas, as her artist boyfriend, are stuck in a pointless subplot, but Benning’s mere presence in a film is always a treat. As for Kazan, a Yale graduate, stage actress, and playwright, this film has garnered her more comparisons to Diablo Cody than to her famed late grandfather. No doubt Elia might have tried to persuade her to ditch the happy ending in favor of a darker, more sinister denouement. Clearly, however, this Kazan is going her own way and, given her multiple talents and the strengths of this effort, her future projects will be worth following.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.