Actress Zoe Kazan's first screenplay is an intriguing, charming romantic comedy, in which she also stars as title character Ruby Sparks. It's a bold debut, one confidently blurring the line between reality and fiction, delivering a smarter, darker examination of relationships than the average rom-com.
It's also the perfect quirky material for the big-screen return of Little Miss Sunshine directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Kazan's story about neurotic young literary genius Calvin (Dano), who writes into existence his perfect girlfriend, is a little Charlie Kaufman-esque. A small writing project set by his psychiatrist to help cure Calvin's writer's block leads him to create the character Ruby Sparks, inspired by a woman he meets in the park.
Motivated by finding this new character, Calvin's words flow and suddenly it appears there is a chance he'll write a follow-up to his bestselling debut novel, which is regarded a decade later as an American classic. Not long after he creates this fictional figure Calvin finds Ruby (Kazan) cooking in his kitchen. Is he going mad or has he magically transported his written character into real life?
Regardless, Calvin decides to stop writing about Ruby and just enjoy his perfect, ready-made relationship. That is, until Ruby starts expressing some individuality. Calvin returns to writing his novel as a way of controlling his sprung-to-life character's emotions, ideas and actions.
Ruby Sparks is obviously not a good case study of how to behave in a relationship, but it also poses some interesting questions. Is an obliging and completely agreeable partner the answer to happiness? How far will someone with the power to control every aspect of their partner abuse that power? Actually, we probably know the answers, but it's fun to watch others do the legwork for us.
Kazan is brilliant as Ruby. When Calvin starts to re-write her character, she whips back and forward between domestic goddess and depressed and giggling idiot with ease. Dano also does a good job with Calvin, in particular given he's a colder and less sympathetic character than those around him, including Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Dano's free-spirited mother and stepfather, who pop up briefly to lighten the mood.
It's a snazzy and thought-provoking debut, and yet Ruby Sparks feels slightly undercooked and occasionally drags. It's based on an imaginative and unpredictable idea but it feels like Kazan wasn't entirely sure where to take it. Nevertheless, Kazan is the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and Robin Swicord (Benjamin Button) and granddaughter of director Elia Kazan (On The Waterfront). Her decision to join the family business was a good one.
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Annette Bening
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Running time: 104 mins
Rating: M (offensive language, sexual references & drug use)
Verdict: An original, whimsical take on love and relationships.