Monday, September 9, 2013

FI: Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks
US, 2012
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Ruby Sparks is an odd little film, a sort of Sundance-y take on the Pygmalion myth via Nathan Rabin's "manic pixie dream girl" construct. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, an author who never lived up to the promise of his successful first novel. His therapist (Elliott Gould) suggests a writing exercise to break his creative funk, and that night Calvin dreams of an impulsive, child-like woman named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay). Inspired (and more than a little in love), Calvin writes about Ruby for the exercise, but one day he wakes up to find that she has become real, and that he has the ability to change her personality simply by writing about it. Their relationship's ups and downs, and Calvin's need to change Ruby for his own purposes, form the film's core.

Kazan's script tackles a number of issues about female representation on screen, not least being the issue of filmic women being denied agency over their lives, instead living only to be quirky and suit the needs of immature men. But more than anything else, it is about people being unable to connect with and accept the totality of another person, the selfish desire to change the things we don't like rather than accepting a person as a whole, separate entity. In this way, the film criticizes the juvenile narcissism and self-defense mechanisms that enable this behavior. Ruby Sparks tackles all of this with the seriocomic tone of the standard indie rom-coms it is criticizing, its underlying darkness and creepiness largely seeping in at the edges aside from one or two more harrowing sequences. Dano and Kazan (a real-life couple) show strong chemistry and are both excellent in their roles. Dano plays all of Calvin's shading well, though I suspect I never found him as sympathetic as the film wanted me to. Kazan, for her part, fully rises to the challenge she wrote herself in capturing Ruby's need to find a meaning outside of Calvin's narrow conceptualization of her.

For me, though, Ruby Sparks never quite comes together. This is, in part, because Kazan's script wants to have its cake and eat it too regarding some of its thematic material, which results in emotional beats and resolutions that don't feel earned on a character level. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of Little Miss Sunshine) play it perhaps too safe, in terms of tone. As a result, the sense of familiarity necessary to convey the script's criticisms becomes a feeling of perfunctoriness or inevitability around certain plot details The story is also digressive in places, such as a trip to visit Calvin's mother (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas) that largely feels like an excuse to get Bening and Banderas in the film—both give fun supporting performances, but they never feel integral to the central story. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does well capturing the architecture of the spaces in which the characters live, depicting a bright, sunny Los Angeles befitting their young, privileged lives, but much of the lighting is curiously flat in a way that doesn't suit the characters' emotional depth. Some of what I'm saying may sound nit-picky or waffling, and perhaps it is, but I came away from Ruby Sparks feeling colder towards it than I expected, and these are really my best guesses as to why. Maybe you'll feel differently.

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