I would like to nominate the summer of 2012 as the season of speculative science fiction and fantasy. Art house film lovers have had several unique opportunities to dabble in the mysteries of time and space and alternate possibilities. Sound of My Voice kicked things off with a surprisingly grounded look at time travel that had audiences questioning the idea as more of a con game run by members of a religious cult. Safety Not Guaranteed, take two of the sci-fi time warp, mixed in decidedly more humor and an even stronger romantic vibe.
For Ruby Sparks, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) tag team with first-time screenwriter and co-star Zoe Kazan to tell the incredible story of Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a young author who finds himself struggling to complete the follow-up to the debut novel that made him one of the brightest literary stars of the late 20th century. Calvin is trapped by the fame generated from this once-in-a-lifetime work and unable to connect with the world around him. He spends time with his brother Harry (Chris Messina) and occasionally drifts close to Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan), a fellow author, but Calvin longs for a deeper relationship, one that he can control.
Calvin dreams and we see, in the fleeting fragments, what is missing. Calvin wants to love and be loved. He wants those perfect moments, the kind that sound pitch-perfect on the page of a great book or when captured onscreen. Soon, he’s able to wake up and jot down snippets. Before long, those puzzling pieces become whole chapters of backstory and character elements and then … the character transforms into a person, a willowy redhead named Ruby (Kazan).
Calvin wakes one morning and she is there, Ruby Sparks in the flesh, ready to prepare breakfast.
She is an artist from Dayton, Ohio. She lives and Calvin can’t figure out the how or why of the situation, but at first, he doesn’t care. After the initial shock wears off, he embraces the secret mystery of her, the idea that she is his. He retreats into a world with just her.
Eventually, he begins to let others in. He invites Harry in to test the reality of Ruby and they play with the boundaries of her life (and notion that her essence comes from what Calvin types on the page). He takes her out into the world and she starts to evolve into a sentient being, with wants and desires free from Calvin’s control. She is Frankenstein’s monster in the modern age, a woman loosed, which means that she is obviously far beyond anything that Calvin, a thoroughly disconnected man, can understand.
The resulting control issues and Calvin’s struggle to regain the upper hand trick us into believing that this story is all about him, but the heart and soul of Ruby Sparks is Ruby herself. We don’t know how she came to be, but she is — she is alive and Kazan captures the wonder of living without a sense of knowing human limits. Ruby truly is the spark in Calvin’s life, the catalyst for change. She cracks his shell because she is attuned to the moment. In some fantastic way, she is exactly what you would expect from a character that has leapt off the page or the screen. She is not tied to her backstory. She is all about the action of the present.
Nowhere is this clearer than when Calvin tests her early on with his brother. Harry convinces Calvin to write that she speaks another language to prove that she, indeed, responds to his written conception of her, and as soon as the words appear on the page — she speaks perfect French. Later on, things take a darker and far more ominous turn as Calvin issues commands to impose his will on Ruby.
Yet, Kazan, through the writing and her performance, makes us see that the story is about the emancipation of this character. She is Pinocchio, longing to be a real girl, when, in fact, she was always more real, more human than Calvin. Dano’s performance falters, in comparison to Kazan’s, because he is relegated to a more reactive position, staring in wonder at Kazan as she bounces and bounds across the screen.
The speculative nature of Ruby Sparks differs from the summer’s earlier examples. Here, the challenge is greater for the audience because we must believe in something that is never explained — a creative miracle without any basis in science or fact — and thanks to Kazan, we do so willingly. (R) Grade: A-
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