Review: Ruby Sparks

Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Written by Zoe Kazan
Starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliot Gould, Chris Messina

Opening in NYC on July 25, 2012

The new ensemble comedy, from the directorial duo behind the 2006 sleeper ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and writer/co-producer/star Zoe Kazan, ‘Ruby Sparks’ serves as a welcome addition to a summer film slate full of…well, you know (‘Battleship’ anyone?  ‘Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’, perhaps.  I thought not).  Having been lucky enough to attend a special screening at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Theater last week I went in knowing virtually zero about the film, yet walked out with a feeling of light- hearted satisfaction; a feeling more in tune with the surprise of coming home to a nicely cooked dinner or a Manhattan bound G train arriving just as you descend onto the subway platform.  ‘Ruby Sparks’ is small; it is funny; it is cute; and it is real (believe it or not).

Having been a fan of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for some time even before ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (remember the classic 90’s music video’s for The Smashing Pumpkins Tonight, Tonight or Korn’s Freak on a Leash), the duo’s millennial foray into the world of idiosyncratic family dysfunction comes as an effervescent and none-too-pretentious addition to a landscape that is chock full of superfluous grit and quirk.

Little Miss Sunshine’ gave audiences a peak into the neurotic needs of 21st century nuclear family with an emphasis on self-esteem and sensationalism, ‘Ruby Sparks’ finds its scope in the mind of its singular protagonist as he desperately suffers in the throws of creative ineptitude; a situation made worse by the levels of financial success and intellectual renown that have come from his one and only literary publication, some ten years earlier.  What happens when the endless imagination of the creator finds itself compromised by the limitations of the human experience; that of the societal pressure of relationship exclusivity, maturation expectations and the general feeling of intellectual inferiority?

Young Calvin (played with a nice balance of futility and “dickishness” by ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘There Will be Blood’ Paul Dano) struggles with the writer’s block that has enthralled his life for quite some time; perhaps it is a result of his suffering from, what I like to call, Michael Jackson syndrome, or the missing out of instrumental period’s of adolescent development for the sole purposes of renown, respect and financial stability rather then enjoying the fruits of life as a young man.  Needless to say, Calvin is socially awkward.  He frequently clutches his lucky stuffed bear during vapid psychotherapy sessions and takes his one true companion, his terrier, for long and overly introspective walks.  Calvin has been in only one long-standing relationship in his life.  He has a seedy agent (Steve Coogan), an over bearing publisher (Aasif Mandvi), an alpha male for a brother (Chris Messina), WASP turned Hippie mother (Annette Bening) and a foreign, artisanal stepfather (Antonio Banderas), all of which find various levels of concern in Calvin’s austere demeanor and interests.  As Calvin’s dreams of perfect companionship become more vivid, his subconscious creation Ruby begins to take shape, both in the mind and on paper.

Ruby, as a character and as a companion, first appears as the penultimate masculine idealization of woman.  She represents the idea of woman, wife, girlfriend, and companion.  She cooks; she cleans; she is sexually voracious, fun, attractive and, most importantly, unattached by any of the restrictive, real world liability that comes from career, friendship or family.  Her abilities, interests and feelings can change at the stroke of Calvin’s archaic typewriter.

Calvin’s immortalization of Ruby on the pages of his surreptitious manuscript comes with the expectation of consistent complacency.  Despite Calvin’s infinite melancholy regarding his situation as sole figure of notability in Ruby’s life, he fails to understand the inevitabilities of dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Calvin’s impression of a healthy relationship is made up almost exclusively of his ability to exercise his control over her.  If he wants her to speak French, he can make it happen.  If he wants her to be happy, sad, angry, distant or close, he can make it happen.  But he cannot keep her inside; he cannot chain her to the proverbial fence and he cannot limit the amount of intellectual advancement that Ruby will experience once let into the outside world.  Though she is a creation, she still remains a human being.  A being with the desire for accomplishment and diverse companionship, from friends to co-workers, family to strangers, Ruby was simply born from Calvin’s mind, but could very well be the girl next door from the town you grew up in.

Ruby Sparks’ is undoubtedly aided in its execution by genuinely sincere performances from real life couple Dano and Kazan.  Its colorful supporting cast (in particularly the diversely resurgent Antonio Banderas) gives welcome humor to a story grounded in the need for companionship and the unquestionable anguish of loneliness.  As the god complex has eternally enthralled the human race to its possibilities, its inevitable pitfalls are discussed with much less frequency.  In the case of a small film like ‘Ruby Sparks’, it does this idea justice by presenting on such a micro scale of relateability, yet still able to universally extenuate the notions of progress and self-realization and the overwhelming need for change and adaptation in order for any situation to consistently captivate one’s interests and desires.

– Steve Rickinson



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