Ruby Sparks is my kind of movie. It’s crisply filmed, it’s relatively short and wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. It’s got a filmy layer of humor that veils a dark message, and the performances by both the leads (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) are right on the money. I’ve read a few reviews that peg Paul Dano as being whiny in this film (something he’s frequently guilty of) but I have to vehemently disagree. I thought his performance was admirable, probably one of his better turns. Zoe Kazan does a marvelous job as well, though this viewer wasn’t anywhere near as charmed by her character as the hero or the other audience members apparently were. More on that in a moment.
For those who haven’t seen the trailer or heard anything about this little indie gem, the basic plot line goes something like this. Nerdy writer genius boy comes into possession of a typewriter that, for one cosmic moment, allows a character he creates to become a breathing reality. After grappling with writer’s block for a hefty amount of time, he meets Ruby Sparks – his dream woman. He peats out a few words on a typewriter and kablooey, he’s got his dream woman in the flesh, strangely shaped face and all. Every writer’s dream, right? Sure. Also the basis for every deus ex machina film this side of the Nile.
What sets this movie apart from the others, however, is the route it chooses to explore. Rather than feel obligated to follow genre stereotypes, it tools around with a peskier and bigger fish – that of relationships themselves, the bond between a male and female, and the inevitabilities of when expectation meets reality. Ruby Sparks feels more like a falling out of love movie than a falling in love movie. It doesn’t do this like 500 Days of Summer, it does this with a metaphysical twist. It introduces the ability to directly control someone. The results are…upsetting.
As we might predict, things start out perfectly, everyone is lovey dovey, there’s the sporadic goofball humor that comes with baby couples and the roguish yet lovable brother figure who seems to be the voice of the audience throughout the whole mess. The film has wonderful cinematography, relying on the words and actions of its characters to tell a story about a relationship. I point this out because Ruby Sparks does this particularly well, and by this I mean dialogue.
I suppose this is a good segue into the artistic quality of writer/actor Zoe Kazan, who not only weaves a remarkable tapestry of believable dialogue and complex characters, but also portrays her character with a wonderful degree of verve and confidence. I for one found her character anything but charming or likable – in fact, I found her profoundly disagreeable for the vast majority of the film, even when I was supposed to be “in love” with her. I liked this, however. It made her feel more real, because the truth is that different people are attracted to different qualities. Ruby Sparks (as Zoe Kazan wrote and portrayed her) felt real.
Real enough that, as a result, her creator felt real. Paul Dano was one of my favorite parts of the film, because it was fascinating watching him handle internal rage instead of hysterical outbursts every ten seconds. Some scenes, namely where he meets his ex-girlfriend at a party, I found absolutely riveting. I will agree, however, that Paul Dano’s performance was only remarkable because it was performed in tandem with Zoe Kazan, and was guided by a character that (I suspect) was based off someone she knew all too well. This brings me to the root of the issue.
Ruby Sparks, while pitched as a romantic comedy, is more of a commentary on the idea of control in relationships. The “controlling boyfriend” idea is taken to whole new levels here, and I think my biggest gripe with the film is that it’s a pretty big middle finger to the entire male gender. Not that I’ve got any real problem with that on an artistic level – anger is the source of a lot of great art. But at the end of the day, I’m a male. I found this movie and it’s portrayal of males wildly offensive, and infinitely worse, largely true.
If I had to peg a reason why this movie didn’t take off as well as it might have, I’d trace it to a lack of conviction. The film does a marvelous job of being angry, of commenting on the male psyche and the need for control in relationships, and then shies away from it’s ideas in the final stretch. The ending is so feel-good that it left me dumbfounded. The film that was so wonderful because of the countless bittersweet compromises it made with it’s audience in the end abandoned these compromises as if suddenly ashamed of the accusations it made in the first place. If a film is going to accuse me and all my fellow men of being controlling, then it shouldn’t back off those accusations at the last minute. It comes across as being…well, lame.
In the end, I did love this movie, but was let down by it. It came so close to being something truly remarkable but never quite scaled the hurdle. It made bold accusations but didn’t follow through with them, giving the audience too much room for self-forgiveness. Instead of holding our feet to the fire like it very nearly does, it instead burns us and then apologizes for doing so. If you’re going to burn me, then burn me, by God. I can take it. I hope.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A good movie, one that carries an important and unpleasant message but abandons it in favor of a feel good popcorn ending. Nonetheless, worth a look.