You have to give Fox Searchlight Films a lot of credit. It takes guts to release a film whose lead actors are far from household names and whose budget was a paltry $8 million into movie theaters during the summer when most of the screens there are showing big budget super-hero films. “Ruby Sparks,” though certainly not flawless, is a clever and relatable film for grownups and that is hard to find at a cineplex anytime let alone summer.
The plot focuses on Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), who published a best-selling novel about teenage angst when he was 18 (think of a young JD Salinger), but has spent the last 10 years trying to come up with a follow-up. He is still embittered about getting dumped by the love of his life, Lila, even though it has been five years since she left him. It appears that the one thing that he doesn’t have to worry about is money since he lives alone in a spacious home with a pool in the upscale Silver Lake section of Los Angeles.
The notion of “the perfect mate” has long been a pop culture fantasy and Calvin starts having dreams of this fictitious artsy, free-spirited girl whose name is Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Since he is a compulsive writer (he still uses a manual Olivetti typewriter), he starts hitting the keys to inscribe his recollections about her as well as adding other attributes that he wishes that she’d possess.
While his goal in writing about Ruby is to give him a subject to write about for his next novel, he gets more than he bargained for when the girl of his imagination actually shows up in his living room.
Since he has been going to a psychiatrist most of his life, Calvin is understandably worried that no one else can see Ruby and that he will be thought of as insane if she turns out to be his version of Harvey. Fortunately, Kazan, who not only stars as the winsome Ruby but is the screenwriter as well, stays away from predictable sitcom territory by making her very visible to everyone.
The film’s central conceit is that Calvin can control Ruby’s thoughts and history with the keystrokes from his typewriter. While this can lead to all kinds of romantic comedy cliches, the filmmakers instead take a fresh approach to examining the pressures that both parties in a relationship feel when they are trying to make each other happy and the insecurities that inevitably play out.
Dano is very believable as the shy and insecure writer who understandably has trouble handling the “genius” tag that was placed on him. Kazan is likable in a role that most of us would associate with an actress with an uncannily similar first name, Zooey Deschannel. The little-known leads are bolstered by a fine supporting cast that features Elliot Gould as a psychiatrist; British comedy actor Steve Coogan as a randy literary agent; Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s overly jovial stepfather; and Annette Bening in yet another older “flower power” role as his mother. The best performance though belongs to Chris Messina who plays Calvin’s sports agent brother, Harry, who looks as if he just stepped off the set of “Jerry Maguire.”
“Ruby Sparks” has a New York-style, Woody Allen-like cerebral quality to it even though it takes place entirely in LA. Surprisingly, there isn’t a single reference to either the film or television industry that is synonymous with the city.
“Ruby Sparks” sparkles.