Ruby Sparks – Movie Review

This is totally not what you’re expecting based on the fuzzy promotional campaign.  The supposedly light romcom involving a reclusive writer and a mystery girl whom he appears to have “written” into being, takes a turn for the sinister in the third act.  

We are suddenly confronted with the fact that we are rooting for the “hero” and his morally reprehensible acts and that we bear some culpability.  This is a not-so-sweet fable on a man’s urge to control a woman completely to keep her close to him.

Paul Dano, who can act the socks off you, is Calvin, a lonesome writer who had a massive Salinger-like book hit a decade ago but has failed to follow up.   He dreams about his ideal woman, a long-haired, bohemian, gentle soul who will understand him and do his bidding.  His gentleness can’t hide the fact that some kind of neuroses drives him to want to subjugate someone.

He is so gentle he’s kind of weak.  His brother and his wife dominate him telling him what to do, what he needs, how to get it and how to re-arrange his life in order to fulfill that (their) goal.   Their “concern” borders on mocking and hostility; his brother can’t speak to him without swearing or challenging him.  He feels superior because he is in a stable-ish relationship. 

And Calvin takes it.  He is pretty pathetic.  So it’s somewhat easier to understand his desire to manipulate someone else, someone he concocts on his typewriter –not on a computer- to match his idea of the perfect pliable woman that he can control.

What happens is that this selfsame young woman suddenly shows up in his home.  She has the same name he gave her on paper – Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan).  She knows who she is; she is what he has been writing in response to his dreams. 

She plays her role and as quickly as he can write a new direction about her in his book, she takes that direction.  He writes that she speaks French and Ruby speaks French.  He toys with her emotional state for the amusement of his brother and his own curiosity.

He constructs a romance between them, feeling a little guilty at first for taking these liberties, but who is she?  A fantasy?  Does she deserve to have her own life and make her own choices?  Does he have the right to control her because he created her?  This is the sticky wicket that turns this sweet romcom on its ear; it become subversive, heavy, threatening and frightening.  It despairs of romance, especially this loveless one.

It’s shocking to discover that we too have crossed the line in rooting for him and his selfish act, which points out to us that we are 1) morally bankrupt and 2) easily lead.

Dano is such a persuasive actor that our first impulse is to follow him in anything his character does.  We buy his initial hesitation but know he will launch a full scale attack against her as an individual with free will.   Kazan clearly has a lot of shades to her actor’s toolbox and puts every one of them to use here.

Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas are visible for about 30 seconds as Calvin’s ageing hippy parents.  It’s clear that they are partly to blame for his rudderless existence; their oddness and refusal to conform may have made him a stickler for order, and made him resort to what he did to captivate a woman.   It’s not his parents’ ideal of “freedom” or “authenticity”.

Kudos to the writer and directors for creating such an interesting cat-and-mouse tale.  The delicacy is ultimately what lets us follow along and withhold our judgment for a time.   This is a complex and challenging film with many possible interpretations.   The actors have made is bearable.  In the end it is a piece of rebel art.

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35mm sci fi romance
Written by Zoe Kazan
Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Opens: July 27
Runtime: 104 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use
Country: US
Language: English