“Write what you know” is one of the many writing tropes referenced directly during this film, an idiom familiar to anyone who has ever written a fictional word; actually scripting someone saying it and similar should seem tired or too on the nose but instead it simply seemed real. The process, the particulars and the psychology of writing as presented by the picture are all slightly dramaticsed and idealized for the bigger than life screen, but at their core they are what I know; as a wannabe writer these made the film feel just like watching what I know.
Calvin is a young writer but his works are an already finished fad, he passed in and out of the zeitgeist before did puberty. So one day, lonely and lacking inspiration, he starts telling the story of his literal dream girl when all of a sudden the character becomes as real to him as those he cares about. There is then a perfectly phenomenal picture in here about the power and perils of writing and the worlds that words can create, however Ruby Sparks is both more and less than that.
Alongside this scripted scripting material it also attempts to mine romantic relationships with the same realism and to the same depth but this theme is a little more hit and miss (or maybe my experience in the field is). The feeling of this fantasy relationship coming to life is a hilarious and heartfelt one to experience but the execution of its evolution suffers on the script level; for every amazing idea there is one that doesn’t quite track, for every stunning line there is one that stutters but most of all the relationship simply never feels as real as the writing. Perhaps this is the point, but it nevertheless fail to satisfy as it should.
The majority of both the praise and malaise for this movie then falls not with its two directors, whose prior picture Little Miss Sunshine has been used most to market it, but with the writer and star Zoe Kazan. I was stunned to see Kazan’s names as sole writer in the end credits, entirely unaware of her rather large role behind the camera, but pleasantly so. While it does take a similarly large ego to write the role of ‘perfect dream girl’ and then cast yourself in it Kazan does a great job of both, so who can blame her?
Sparks is very much the modern day manic pixie dream girl when we first meet her and the film sweeps you off your feet to swooning with stylized scenes that hammer that in. She is artsy, irreverent, effervescent, ambitious and affectionate; a perfect combination and interestingly very much a combination of the protagonist’s ex and mother, every trait of hers taken directly from either one or the other. It’s when Sparks stops being an imaginary, immature and impossible girl and starts becoming a real woman that the role suffers somewhat and this is mainly since it is not her perspective that we see. Sure she is a character, that much is certain, but what remains in doubt is whether or not she is a three dimensional one.
Instead we are stuck inside the head of that cautious young writer Calvin who is charismatically played by the usually caustic Paul Dano. I do love Dano as an actor but I wasn’t entirely sure how he would handle being both a lead and a romantic one at that, but he too does both brilliantly. Not wanting to spoil anything but I have to say that he also does the depression and darkness required of the role more justice than any other ‘indie’ actor would have. Chris Messina as his brother was also amazing; with Damages now over, this and Mindy hitting in the one month he will surely become a star himself. Scotty though, Calvin’s terrier was the real stand-out; not only as cuter than the dog in The Artist but with more metaphorical meaning than the bitch in Beginners, Scotty is not only -as Ruby suggests – a psychological power-play but also an avatar of Calvin himself.
More than the dog though, that darkness I mentioned though is what makes this film really interesting and more than just a financially backed writers fantasy; even though it would have been both fun and funny as that. Kazan and her compatriots take the concept of the film to its furthest reaches and those are as creepy and disturbing as they are cute; we see constantly in real life the corruptive effect that slight power over people can have on someone, so imagine what unlimited willpower would do to an already delicate outcast.
I really loved that the film was brave enough to dive into these disconcerting waters, but I can’t help but feel that once you are in them they need to become the focus; you can’t simply show us the shallow end and then wade back out which is what the film does in a way. Wrapping up with a charming happy ending for the protagonist who only seconds ago was seconds away from turning this into a horror movie also doesn’t feel earned and skewed the focus too far towards the film’s less successful stream of thought.
Still Sparks started with such a great idea (one of those ones that you kick yourself for not coming up with before Kazan did) and though imperfect is executed to a standard much higher than I ever could have achieved (so in a strange way you’re also glad that you didn’t). The good, the bad, the happy and the sad this was a film that I could really relate too in a way that I don’t usually do. I’m not normally the type to put myself in the heroes shoes or see myself doing what they do but here I couldn’t help it. This is what I know, and what I know is that I too loved Ruby Sparks despite, or perhaps because of, those inevitable imperfections.