Having achieved meteoric success at the tender age of eighteen, Calvin (Paul Dano) is now plagued with writer’s block and unable to move past his own self-doubt, relying all too heavily on his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould), and assertive brother, Harry (Chris Messina), for direction. In a desperate attempt to kickstart Calvin’s creative flow, Dr. Rosenthal implores him to write about a fantasy scenario as if it were true; and so Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), the lively, quirky and carefree girl of his dreams, leaps off his page and into his life.
Imbued with a sense of magical realism and whimsicality that enables it to be both delightful and erudite in equal measure, Ruby Sparks is in no way the conventional, placid rom-com its rote setup implies. Sure, it’s made to seem as though Ruby is a rudimentary Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only there to help Calvin resolve his deep, dark issues, but once the necessaries of the narrative have been determined, the film tightens its focus and takes on a whole new approach.
It’s an approach that’s far more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the characters and their relationship with one another than anything else. The script, penned by actress turned screenwriter Kazan, focuses almost solely on Calvin and Ruby, only bringing in subsidiary characters when needed to drive the narrative forward. In the early stages of their relationship, it’s all love-struck frolicking (captured perfectly in a montage set to Plastic Bertrand’s punk rock track Ça Plane Pour Moi) and happiness.
However, when Ruby moves away from the brief outline accounted for on paper and starts to formalise her own opinions, feelings and emotions, Calvin wastes no time in modifying her personality to his own wants and needs, regardless of her free will. This touches upon the age-old issue of control and male dominance within a relationship, but particularly highlights the fact that the “genius” label Calvin has attracted over the year has had a profound effect on his assumptions to what he can and can’t do.
It’s smart work, and Kazan’s script is extraordinary layered and intricate for a first attempt (an Academy Award nomination is not out of the question). Her ability to write from experience, yet maintain a distance so as not to alienate, talk down to or badger the audience in any way is remarkable in itself. The film effortlessly coasts from happy to sad, hopeful to melancholy, reaching a heartbreaking crescendo come the final act – one that’s authentic and in keeping with the characters’ continually altering perspectives.
The direction of husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valarie Faris, who are pros at covering the complex territory of realistic human relationships, builds on the successes of the script. They take their skill to another level here as they infuse the drama with a solid scattering of inherently comedic respites (Calvin and Ruby’s weekend trip to visit Calvin’s unorthodox parents, a French-speaking Ruby and a madcap exchange between Calvin and Harry shortly after Ruby’s conception, are particular highlights).
Ruby Sparks’ smartness is brought to shimmering, poignant life through the superb performances displayed across the board (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas are fantastic in their bit parts), and the infectious chemistry shared between off-screen couple Dano and Kazan. The fact that the film entertains as much as it illuminates certain notions is a true testament not only to the abilities of those involved, but also to the idea that if you treat your audience as equally intelligent, then the experience will be much more rich and heartwarming.