Writer’s block is like solitary confinement for a writer. Actually, writing period is like solitary confinement. Sitting alone in front of a computer, or if you prefer the old mechanical beast called a typewriter, only to stare at a blank page as the words remain trapped inside of your head, fingers arched helplessly as they hover over the keyboard. Anyone who has written anything has probably encountered the same problem. And while there have been films about the writing process and the problems that lie therein, Ruby Sparks presents us with a boy meets girl tale that feels like it drew inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Hughes’ Weird Science.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a young novelist who dropped out of high school and wrote what could be best described as the great American novel at the age of nineteen. Now he’s on the other side of twenty-five and has only written the occasional short story. He has another novel in him, but he can’t get the words out. Strangely enough he’s not a barfly or uses drugs to assuage the blockage. But he sees a psychiatrist like that’s the solution. Here’s the secret: when you have writer’s block you start writing again. Inspiration is key and right now Calvin’s not feeling very inspired. Turns out that inspiration manifests itself in the form of a dream girl. Then the Muse appears in the flesh and Calvin starts typing into the wee hours of night not wanting to waste the momentum. Perhaps this is what J.D. Salinger was missing after the success of The Catcher in the Rye. He didn’t have a muse.
Ruby Sparks presents itself as a romantic comedy and it is for the first half of the movie. Then the honeymoon period that starts where most romantic comedies end ends and what was light and fluffy – with wish fulfillment actualized – goes to a place where most of its ilk dare not go. And that’s too bad, because the best romantic stories (not just comedies) shouldn’t stop right at the honeymoon. One particular scene is dark in its connotation that felt reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein being repulsed by his creation. It’s a strong scene showing how much of a puppet master Calvin truly is.
The hook of the movie is one that will either pull you in or leave you hanging. Here we have a writer with writer’s block who conjures up a woman (the titular named Ruby Sparks played by Zoe Kazan) out of thin air who is absolutely perfect, and absolutely real. Calvin thinks he’s hallucinating in a Jimmy-Stewart-sees-an-imaginary-rabbit-named-Harvey kind of way. His older disbelieving brother Harry (Chris Messina) also feels the same, until he meets Ruby for the first time. During the visit comes the discovery that Calvin can control his new ladylove by typing words on his typewriter. “For men everywhere, tell me you’re not going to let that go to waste,” Harry asks him.
Thankfully the screenplay, written by star Zoe Kazan, makes no effort in trying to explain the unexplainable. After the initial shock factor wears off, the manifestation becomes acceptable to all parties who cross her path. With Ruby as Calvin’s girlfriend it allows for the introduction of other characters who don’t really further the plot but give us a greater sense of why Calvin is hermitlike, preferring to stay enclosed in his whitewall duplex. We meet his mother (Annette Benning) and her live-in lover (Antonio Banderas), a pair of Bohemians that live in a household opulently furnished with plants, as well as Calvin’s ex, Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), who he considers a prude and despises her for leaving him a few weeks after his father’s passing.
As the follow-up to their Oscar-winning hit Little Miss Sunshine, co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have delivered an unconventional love story that doesn’t abide by romantic comedy conventions. If anything Kazan’s screenplay deconstructs the comedy while giving us the lifespan of a relationship. Calvin manifests a woman – and he didn’t even need pictures of Kelly LeBrock and a computer scanner to make it happen! – falls madly in love, but then the honeymoon period ends and he doesn’t know what to do with his creation. Outside of his controlling nature of Ruby (literally) is the understated subtext of Calvin’s emotional stability and how he may have changed after the death of his father. The passing is mentioned in brief but such tragedy could have led to Calvin dropping out of high school and gravitating towards writing. Though that’s pure conjecture on my part. However, it does draw a distinction to his temperament and his willingness to change his girlfriend with just a few keystrokes.
Ruby Sparks has a wonderful screenplay but in the hands of the wrong set of actors it could just be another indie release that likely won’t find its way into many theaters. It helps that Kazan is working alongside her real-life beau Paul Dano. I wouldn’t expect the same level of chemistry if it were Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (too soon?). Dano may not scream romantic lead, but the guy has been one of the best under-30 talents in Hollywood, having had standout performances matched against the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) and most recently Robert De Niro (Being Flynn). In Sparks he plays Calvin as a Woody Allen in training. This comedy is the type Allen made in his heyday, before he decided to get out of New York and make European travelogues.
Fox Searchlight, which specializes in turning charming indies into small hits, would like the film to be as warmly embraced by audiences as (500) Days of Summer was a few summers ago. But aside from both films deconstructing a relationship and sharing the same distributor, they are dissimilar from one another. They may offer sunshine, but the dark cloud that looms in Sparks is far more taxing emotionally than simply drifting apart. The comedy may not be the confectionery delight that the advertisements are promoting, but it remains one of the better efforts in a summer that, aside from a few films, has been disappointing.
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris Writer: Zoe Kazan Notable Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliot Gould, Alia Shawkat
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!