Film review: Ruby Sparks

by David Larsen / 22 September, 2012
This is a story about a man so brilliant, so self-oblivious and so self-involved that he ends up in a love-hate relationship with a personification of his own mind, says David Larsen.
Ruby Sparks


Paul Dano is an empty suit. He is a human vacuum. There’s nothing wrong with that. In There Will Be Blood, his needy, controlling preacher is the perfect opponent for Daniel Day-Lewis’s charismatic Daniel Plainview. Not because Dano is up to Day-Lewis’s weight, but because the preacher’s lack of substance is so suggestive. It prompts us to see that Plainview, superficially one of the most impressive characters in recent cinema, is just as hollow-souled as his enemy. In Little Miss Sunshine, Dano is equally well cast as the vow-of-silence teen: a sad, still space in the midst of chaos and volubility, and the natural repository of other character’s confidences.

Ruby Sparks is Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s first film since they co-directed Little Miss Sunshine. To the extent that it’s a light comedy-drama rooted in the deep dark of our cultural unconscious, it’s a similar work, and it’s easy enough to watch. I can imagine audiences sailing through it unbruised, albeit undelighted. But it’s also a dream realisation fantasy in the tradition of Big and The Purple Rose of Cairo, and it contrives to leave its best ideas undeveloped without providing much in the way of compensatory entertainment. I am, I confess, a fantasy nerd. The film reduced me to weary rage. Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a young writer who, when younger still, produced a first novel now widely acknowledged as a great American masterpiece. Years have passed. Calvin’s much anticipated second novel has become a hobgoblin clamped firmly to his back. Dodged phone calls from his agent, anguished confrontations with persistently blank pages: Hollywood’s usual muse-gone-missing writer’s story.

But then the twist. Calvin is also – despite the hordes of willing groupies who illustrate the film’s fuzzy plausibility settings by besieging him at book signings – achingly lonely. He wakes one morning from a dream of a perfect woman. He writes the dream down. Thwarted artistic energy surges through this breach in the dam: he names his dream woman Ruby Sparks, and makes her as real on the page as he can. She promptly comes to life. Ruby is played by Zoe Kazan, who wrote this film, setting up its one pleasing irony: the vacuous woman imagined by this vacant dullard is in fact the real woman whose mind brought both characters to the screen. But we are meant to see other ironies. Ruby, seemingly just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, is also a projection of Calvin’s unconscious, and therefore a terrifying mirror in which he will glimpse the demonic genius lurking under his own bland surface. This is a story about a man so brilliant, so self-oblivious and so self-involved that he ends up in a love-hate relationship with a personification of his own mind.

It’s a wonderful, dark notion. Since it requires Calvin to possess raging inner fires, one infers that Dayton and Faris have faith in Dano’s ability to show us hidden complexities, despite the lack of help from a water-weak script. This faith is monumentally misplaced. Certainly there are actors who could make a meal of Calvin’s covert misogyny and self-hatred, even as written; Jesse Eisenberg comes to mind. Dano, an actor of surfaces and silences, is ludicrously wrong for the job. The film is left high and dry, struggling to plumb the depths of a man who doesn’t have any.

Rating: 2/5

ON THE ROAD, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing

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