I’ve been meaning to watch Ruby Sparks for some time now. It was languishing in my Netflix cue for a year or so when it finally arrived in my mailbox. But a funny thing happened on the way to watching it – my DVD player broke and my laptop player also stopped working. So it hung around in its lonely sleeve for months. Then I got cable again after a year without, mainly so I could watch English football, and it appeared on a free-for-the-moment movie channel. And what a film!
Ruby Sparks is about a lonely writer, languidly traipsing through life in the aftermath of the early success of his first novel at the sapling age of 19. He still publishes short stories but is approaching 30 without a second book yet completed. He is also friendless, without a girlfriend since his of five years left and depressed, with his brother one of the few non-literary presences in his life. The writer, Calvin Weir-Fields (played by the excellently Paul Dano) has a dream one day about a girl that he can’t get out of his mind. She seems perfect from afar and he might be in love with her already. His analyst Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) assigns him the project of writing about the girl and within a few days she appears in his apartment, just as he has written her. From here the story launches into a fanciful, though nuanced contemplation of what happens when one falls for the idyllic Golem they have created. Perfection, of course, must always destroy itself and problems emerge. Whenever they become overwhelming, Calvin simply writes a few lines and her character changes overnight. But can one really sculpt a real life person out of fiction and keep her happy? Can one be happy themselves if their creation expands beyond the contours of the life you have created for them. These are the questions the clever screenplay asks.
The film is backed with a core of talented actors, including Annette Bening as his quirky, new age mother Gertrude, Chris Messing as his stern brother, Antonio Banderas as his step father artist Mort and Steve Coogan as the beguiling Langdon Thorp. But it is the script that impresses the most, hints of the nonpareil Charlie Kaufman’s genius present throughout, including in a clever ending with words soaked with meaning. Dano is great as a moppy, depressed genius – a part he seems ideal for – but it is Zoe Kazan as writer and lead actress that really brings the script alive.
I first came across Kazan on Broadway, in my favorite playwright Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane (2010). I was immediately smitten by her vexing performance and idiosyncratic acting style, which she has repeated in several movies since including the The Exploding Girl, about an epileptic girl coming of age on summer break from college. I had no idea she had written this film until the end, when her enchantment hit new heights. Kazan acts, writes plays and has now added a clever first script to her impressive repertoire. There are interesting similarities between her and Zoey Deshanel, as both play odd hipster retro girls who sometimes act like 50s dream girls and other times as complex contemporary women traversing the seemingly contradictory gender roles of advertisers, mainstream films and reality television against the more empowering vision increasingly seen in a smattering of film, television and books. Dashanel has a rather impressive side gig as a humorous double to M. Ward in She & Him, but a feminist lesbian friend of mine offered a rather impressive feminist critique of Deshanel that I can’t seem to shake ever since. Kazan, on the other hand, seems to go deeper into her roles finding richer characters that lead the action through their development and complexity. She is just as charming as Deshanel (or maybe more so), but there is deeper vulnerability and intelligence in her performances that seems to capture the complexity of gender politics and identity in our confusing, schizophrenic age. She is a descendant of Hollywood royalty who has crafted an impressive CV already with four films being released this year alone.
Ironically, the simplistic, puerile humor of Don Jon appears to be getting more positive reviews as and press than this gem of a writing debut from three years ago. I would certainly recommend the latter. A-