(Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2012)
Its a likeable film, Ruby Sparks. It has a great, impressively starry cast, it's directed with an energetic freshness and a nice sense of Los Angeles, it has a soundtrack filled with French language pop classics by Plastic Bertrand and Sylvie Vartan, and it makes something interesting from its premise.
That premise is quite high-concept. Calvin (Paul Dano) is a twentysomething novelist who became massively successful with his first book, published while he was still in his teens. Now, years later, he finds writing difficult, finds relationships more difficult, and lives in a beautiful house in the hills above L.A. with his dog Scotty, seeing few people beyond his Psychiatrist (Elliot Gould) and his brother Harry (Chris Messina). His loneliness is nicely evoked in the first act, in the way he talks to Scotty, the way he comports himself at a book event, the way he avoids his brother's questions. Following a simple writing task assigned by his shrink, he writes about a literal dream girl and finds himself enraptured by her. And then, incredibly, she appears, flesh and blood, in his house. Her name is Ruby (Zoe Kazan), and she is another in that recentish strain of "Manic Pixie Dream Girls" who have started to appear like nervous tics in indie romcoms.
The difference here is that Kazan (who wrote the script) and the directors Dayton and Faris know that this is what Ruby is, and they fully intend to interrogate this odd screen stereotype.
This is first signalled by Harry's response on reading Calvin's manuscript: "You don't know jack shit about women." he says, pointing out that girls like Ruby don't exist in the real world, that people are complicated, that women are mysterious creatures.
Ruby Sparks then functions along two parallel lines. One is a straight indie romcom; somewhat twee, nothing we havent seen before, with scenes of young love and passion, with pop music and exciting, colourful visuals. The other is far darker and more interesting, taking on the male gaze and relationships in general. Calvin idealises Ruby and is disappointed by her. He vows not to write/invent her anymore, but once their relationship begins to drift, he cannot resist the urge to fix them (by fixing her).
This is all an obvious metaphor for any relationship, but it works because the treatment of the fantastic elements of the story is so straight-faced, because the cast is so good, and because the pain, when it comes, seems quite real, quite true.
Dano makes Calvin a complex individual, whose lonely vulnerability in the first act is thrown into a slightly different light as we learn more about him, his control freak tendencies, his lack of interest in others. Kazan's Ruby is a typically annoying Manic Pixie Dream Girl early on, but her later articulation of sadness, emptiness and rage gives both the film and character another dimension. But it is the supporting cast who really lift the material; Messina is always good, in everything, and he is the most believably human person in the film, warm, funny, amazed. Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Gould and Steve Coogan all do great work too.
The whole thing is a mite predictable and the ending seems slightly out-of-keeping with what has gone before, but overall this is an enjoyable, surprisingly honest look at love and relationships, told through an interesting mix of fantasy and comedy.