Between this year’s theatrical releases and the classic movies I’ve been working my way through, there has been very little time to catch up on some of the hidden gems of 2012 that I’ve missed. Of these, the only three I now have remaining are Headhunters, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Robot & Frank, all three of which I’ll probably get covered within the next month. Today’s 2012 diamond in the rough, however, comes in the form of the first movie co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have put forth since the 2006 indie-darling Little Miss Sunshine. Featuring one of the most original premises of last year, Ruby Sparks was met by all of the critical success and none of the box office punch of it’s predecessor, the latter of which is a real shame in light of the breath of fresh air that it is. Its implausible story may put off some viewers, but Ruby Sparks‘ central theme of the love’s inability to be designed or forced provides a spectacular catalyst for the development of it’s characters
If you try to look at the story in terms of mechanics or rationality, you’re probably going to be frustrated. The story in Ruby Sparks is almost exclusively used as a frame for the characters’ developments than anything else. Luckily, it does such a great job of developing those characters that I didn’t mind the questions raised by the plot, even though the ending did feel a bit too confusing for its own good.
Many of you might remember lead actor Paul Dano from his nearly silent role in Little Miss Sunshine, though even more of you will likely remember his as (character) form There Will Be Blood. In different ways, both of those films displayed how impressive of an actor Dano is, and I can say without much hesitation that Ruby Sparks reinforces that point even further. For the first half of the movie, Calvin is mostly defined as a neurotic shut-in but once Ruby enters the picture we start to see him both at his best and at his worst. The last twenty minutes in particular are incredibly powerful, largely due to the darker side to (character) that is finally laid bare.
Ruby herself, played by writer and producer Zoe Kazan, is a very interesting character but in a very different way. The reason for this is that she really isn’t a real character as much as she is a reflection of Calvin’s personality. Because her actions and mannerisms are controlled by him, her development is completely dependent on what Calvin wants her to be. This shifts the focus of her character to the complexities of just what it is that creates love between two people, which I’ll elaborate upon in the writing section. In any case, I thought Kazan did a great job of conveying the intended effects of the character.
Besides the Kazan and Dano, though, my favorite member of the supporting cast was definitely Chris Messina as Calvin’s vicariously frat-boyish brother Harry. Messina reminds me of a sort of male version of Jessica Chastain in terms of the sheer amount of very different roles he is able to melt into. His role here is something of a stand in for most “normal” audiences in terms of his reactions to the situation at hand (the magical creation of a fantasy girl from words entered into a typewriter), and he brings a level of down-to-earth honesty that goes a long way in revealing Calvin’s flaws.
As I said before, this movie doesn’t exist to tell a story but to explore the complexities of love and relationships. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can relate to the thought of what would happen if you were given the ability to change something in the other person. This movie takes a long hard look at what would happen if that was the case, and in Calvin’s case it takes the form of a series of increasingly drastic overcorrections. Calvin creates his dream girl, only to discover small flaws. When he tries to change her to “fix” those flaws, he only creates more and more until the entire thing unravels entirely. I could go on and on about the internal conversations this started in my mind, but the fact that it prompted those conversations in the first place should be an indicator of the lasting impact of the film’s subject matter.
As a side note, I can understand some feminist concerns some might have with the film. After all, the only female lead is essentially an exploration of what a man wants out of his significant other (i.e. the Pixie dream girl). I would argue that this is mitigated by the way the movie handles the effect. They could have gone a much more sexist route by having Calvin write in things like “Large breasts, great ass, long legs”, but the almost entirely non-physical focuses of the changes Calvin writes in make it much easier to think of Calvin and Ruby’s relationship in more of a gender-neutral way.
The Verdict: 8.0/10 Pretty Damn Great
+ Inventive and interesting premise and story
+ Great performances by Dano and Kazan
+ A really great set of observations on the nature of relationships
– The mechanics of the plot are assumed to be unimportant, but are still a bit distracting
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Marked Movies: 4.5/5
The Cinematic Katzenjammer: 8.6/10
The Code is Zeek: 2.5/5
The Cinemaniac: C+