Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina 15A cert, general release, 103 min
This fractured comedy is a triumph for writer-star Zoe Kazan and a worthy follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, writes DONALD CLARKE
THIS ZESTY FILM hangs around a conceit that pops up every few years or so: an author is confronted with one of his own creations and is forced to question the nature of reality. Any number of post-modern novels have had a crack. Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author played the game in reverse. The recent movie Stranger Than Fiction pushed the concept to its limits.
The intriguing team behind Ruby Sparks has, however, devised an original take on the familiar trope. Working from a script by Zoe Kazan, who also stars, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, directors of Little Miss Sunshine, have melded that meta-narrative with a variation on the Pygmalion myth to produce a decidedly sinister romantic comedy. Ruby Sparks has its charming moments: what solid human could resist pretty people dancing to Plastic Bertrand? But, at its best, the picture offers worrying commentary on male stereotypes of femininity and on the gender’s domineering tendencies. Ms Kazan, the granddaughter of Elia, is no sort of fool.
The picture concerns Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a neurotic author who has failed to follow up on an iconic first novel. He bickers with his more conventional brother (suave Chris Messina). He talks back to his therapist (reliable Elliott Gould). Recently, he has started having peculiar dreams about a vague, flighty young girl named Ruby Sparks. The character begins solidifying in his mind and, following advice from Dr Gould, he begins writing notes about her. The notes grow into a novel and he finally finds himself back in possession of his creative mojo. Then, one day, he discovers Ruby (Kazan) standing in his kitchen.
Among other things, Ruby Sparks works as an essay on the troublesome notion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Enter halfway through and you could be forgiven for thinking that the directors have lazily boiled up every unwanted Zooey Deschanel role to create a kind of MPDG stockpot. Look at her kooky clothes. Watch as she dances gawkily. Check out her lovely drawings.
But Ruby is, of course, the unsatisfactory creation of an introverted, socially maladroit man. As the film progresses, those attributes becomes ever more apparent. Annoyed that Ruby dares to have other friends, Calvin rewrites the story and she becomes far too clingy. Then he tries to balance her out. By the close, Dano, who has always been good at conveying dangerous obsession, has turned Calvin into a monster of ego and self-absorption.
Zoe Kazan, a genuinely unconventional actor – as opposed to the pre-packaged oddballs who populate too many MPDG movies – makes something poignant of a character that could so easily have been little more than a fleshy robot. A core personality, vulnerable, but wise, survives the many tweaks imposed by her latter-day Professor Higgins.
All this makes the film sound like something of a downer. But Faris and Dayton know how to inject dreamy energy into even the uneasiest scenes: as in Miss Sunshine, Nick Urata’s score surges empathetically at all the right moments; the editing clicks along to an attractive loping rhythm. As Calvin’s hippie mother and stepfather, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas just about manage to dispel unhelpful memories of Hoffman and Streisand in Meet the Fockers.
If the film has a problem (and it does), it lies in its incongruously sunny, slightly haphazard ending. To this point, Kazan has constructed a comedy with real bite, but the denouement tends too much towards My Fair Lady and not enough towards the ruder lessons of Pygmalion. Ruby Sparks remains, however, an unexpectedly salty, impressively brave entertainment.
Oh, and don’t worry. Despite what the trailer suggests, that Kaiser Chiefs song appears nowhere in the film.