For the last six years, we’ve been waiting patiently for the sophomore effort from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The husband-and-wife team responsible for 2006‘s Little Miss Sunshine, one of the finest films of the last decade, has finally returned with Ruby Sparks, an innovative romantic comedy that brings to life a fantasy most writers only dream about. It asks the question: What if those dreams came to life?
Paul Dano stars as Calvin, a writer who ten years ago burst onto the scene with one of the most influential books of all time. Sadly, he’s never been able to deliver a follow-up. He talks this over with his shrink (Elliott Gould), whom he tells the simple truth: “I come up with a great idea, and then I think it’s the stupidest thing ever.” He begins to have dreams about a nameless girl, but soon is inspired with the name, Ruby Sparks. Before he realizes it, a week has past and he’s come up with almost 100 pages worth of material about her. He’s convinced that he’s fallen in love with his own creation.
Then one morning he wakes up, late for an appointment with his publisher (Steve Coogan), and discovers on his way out that Ruby (Zoe Kazan) is real and standing in his kitchen. He begins to take it for granted and controls Ruby’s actions with any sentence he writes about her. Once he discovers this, he decides to stop writing so he can let the relationship play itself out without his influence – but that’s easier said than done when Ruby starts to get a mind of her own.
Dayton and Faris couldn’t have chosen a better script to make for their second film (written by Zoe Kazan). The film is at times very funny, but at the same time there is a real undercurrent of darkness and sadness. It’s not quite as good as Little Miss Sunshine, but it’s not that far off from it either.
Ruby Sparks is quite a journey from beginning to end. The performances are especially strong, with Paul Dano giving yet another terrific performance. It’s easy to believe that he is an accidental success who is just as flabbergasted by the discovery of Ruby as we are. That’s what makes the lightest parts of the film so much fun to watch (including a brilliant montage of Calvin and Ruby set to Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane Pour Moi”), but at the same time, the film takes a plot device from one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Delirious, and transcends the idea into something much more inventive.
Credit also goes to Zoe Kazan, who proves to be just as good of an actress as she is a writer. Because she and Dano are a couple in real life, the chemistry between the two is absolutely outstanding. At the same time, Kazan is also able to give the character a real ‘spark’ of vulnerability. One sequence where Ruby has been written to be miserable without Calvin shows true invention, especially when he unknowingly lets go of her at a crowded intersection. When Calvin sees her face again, the expression she has is one of sheer abandonment. At the same time, Kazan is also saying something about real relationships. The movies is filled with moments just like that.
The climax is filled with as much sadness and there is joy. For those who thought that Little Miss Sunshine didn’t have enough emotional weight, Dayton and Faris prove here that they are more than capable of delivering this kind of power and then some. Credit must also be given to the film’s composer Nick Urata (one of the leaders of DeVotchKa, the band who made the music of Little Miss Sunshine come alive), who creates one of the most beautiful scores I’ve heard in any film this year.
I’m certain that Ruby Sparks won’t be a film for everyone. At times, many will think that it comes off as too cute for its own good, and they’re probably right. As the film ended, I was struck by the awe of hopefulness that the film contains. It also helps that the supporting performances are all worthwhile (Chris Messina is really funny as Calvin’s brother, and Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas don’t overstay their welcome as their mother and her lover). Ruby Sparks is not only the best romantic comedy since (500) Days of Summer, but it’s also one of 2012‘s best movies. The movie’s message is clear: No relationship is perfect – not even one that can be controlled.