I’m sitting here listening to The Ramones’ cover of “Baby, I Love You” by The Ronettes and I’ve got that 80′s movie feeling. Maybe you know it: kind of a butterflies in the stomach, hopelessly crushing on someone while wishing you were someone else as John Hughes chooses the perfect pop song for your life to fall apart to feeling. It’s this melancholy romanticism that will win me over every single time as long.. as it’s genuine. When I heard about Fox Searchlight’s “Ruby Sparks”, a film about a writer whose latest female character suddenly materializes as his girlfriend, I got goosebumps…. “Weird Science” and “Mannequin” goosebumps. But as much as I wanted this movie to be my perfect mashup of these two childhood favorites, it wasn’t. And really, that’s perfect in a way because those expectations for an impossible ideal are exactly what the movie warns us about.
Calvin (Paul Dano) is a novelist with writer’s block. Since his blockbuster debut at age 19, he’s been under intense pressure to live up to his wunderkind status with an equally stellar follow up. During a therapy session, he’s given the “homework” assignment of writing a character who likes his dog, Scotty as much as he does. He comes up with a young woman named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) and the more that is written, the more Calvin falls in love with his creation. One day, she suddenly exists like she’s been there all along and believes the two are dating. Needless to say, this isn’t normal and Calvin thinks he’s losing his mind. When he realizes the rest of the world can see Ruby, the two begin what’s a perfect relationship. But just like in the real world, this is just a honeymoon period. As Calvin and Ruby begin to drift apart, Calvin realizes he can control her with a few keystrokes on his typewriter. But every time he changes her, she just isn’t right. Try as he might to control and protect this idea of his perfect woman, Calvin learns the hard way that you just can’t reduce somebody to an ideal.
Helmed by married-in-real-life “Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Ruby Sparks” is a low budget family affair. Both had already worked with “Sunshine” actor Dano and Kazan, his off-screen girlfriend, wrote the script with him in mind for the lead. This real-world intimacy helps yield solid performances loaded with emotional heft which elevates the film above the straight-to-video 80′s-esque fare which seems to clutter the shelves at Blockbuster. I’m not knocking those other films at all – I’m a fan – but “Ruby Sparks” has a pretty hefty center that nearly anybody who’s been in a failed relationship will feel, keeping it less in the realm of romantic fantasy and more in the harsh reality of life. Certainly not the cinematic equivalent of pop music that I was expecting.
This is all because Kazan’s script is honest and unrelenting. The whimsical premise is a trojan horse for the real issue to sneak in: that of control. Once the shine on a new relationship wears off, those little foibles rise to the surface. Maybe you don’t like that he stays out too late. Maybe she sings while you’re watching the game. Maybe you want them to CHANGE. As Calvin changes his ideal, Ruby changes too. Like one of those little “slippery sausage” toys that you try to hold on to, but it slides out from your grasp. It isn’t about that person changing to fit your idea of what they should be, it’s about you accepting that person for who they are and allowing them to become who they’ll soon be. It’s unfair to demand anything else.
As far as the disc goes, the picture quality is pretty amazing. “Ruby Sparks” was shot digitally, but it looks film-like. It’s clean and crisp with just the right amount of film grain to make it feel like 35mm. The soundtrack is DTS HD-MA 5.1 surround, but this isn’t the kind of picture where you’d notice. Like most films of this ilk, it’s pretty much just dialogue; no explosions, no roaring monsters. There are a good number of extras including the film’s trailer and a handful of featurettes. “The Story,” “The Cast,” “Los Angeles: The Other Character,” “Real Life Couples” and “Be Careful What You Wish For” will keep those interested in the inspiration for and making of “Ruby Sparks” entertained for a good while. Personally, I lost interest after a bit and might’ve preferred a commentary by the Directors and stars.
All in all, “Ruby Sparks” gets a heavenly 3 out of 4 angels. This is the kind of film that’s a fun little escape from the real world, but in the end will have you reflecting on your own life. With a terrific script and solid acting and direction, it’s an overlooked gem you’ll be glad you invested the time into.