By Carl Kozlowski
Calvin Weir-Fields is a novelist who wrote an instant classic bestseller on his first attempt at a book at the age of 19. But for the past 10 years, the pressure of creating a worthy follow-up has induced such paralyzing fear in him that he has barely written a single new page.
As a fictional character played by Paul Dano in the new comedy Ruby Sparks, Calvin’s plight parallels that of the directing team guiding this new film. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris guided their own debut film, Little Miss Sunshine, to a Best Picture Oscar nomination in 2006 before falling into the directors’ equivalent of writer’s block—development hell—and finding themselves unable to helm another project for five years until Ruby came along.
The film reteams Faris and Dayton with Dano, who memorably played a very unhappy teenager in that prior dark comedy. This time, the results aren’t quite as classic, but they have managed to produce a film that is entertaining as well as occasionally disturbing, all the while expertly juggling those dual tones with aplomb.
For Sparks isn’t just about one novelist’s bout with writer’s block. Rather, its sharp and incisive script by Zoe Kazan, who also plays the title character, takes a writer’s dream situation—what if you wrote a character who came to life and fell in love with you?—and turns it into a nightmare.
The reason Calvin finds himself in this mess is that he is so socially inept he has no friends other than his married and cocky brother, and his only past relationship imploded after five years. So when he starts having vibrant dreams about a cute hipster chick talking to him, Calvin races to his typewriter and finds himself turning those nocturnal visions into his first quality writing in years.
He’d be happy enough right there, but then suddenly he notices that the girl of his dreams has literally become a woman: an amazing, flesh-and-blood muse in his real world. With only his brother aware of the situation, Calvin plunges into a relationship with her and winds up opening a whole can of ethical worms.
Ruby Sparks works on a number of levels: as a cute romantic comedy, as a hilarious buddy film between the brothers and as a brilliant and funny metaphor for the stages of a relationship. But most impressively, Kazan’s script isn’t afraid to back off from more challenging issues, as Calvin’s dilemma in how much to control Ruby—who will act out or say anything he wants her to—reflects the power dynamics between people in all their highs and lows.
Dano is superb here, playing a guy who could be inherently unlikable both as a loser and for his desire to control his girlfriend and finding ways for the audience to empathize with him and laugh at most of his foibles. But when he faces a particularly dark night of the soul, Dano also knows how to let anger and frustration rip from his being and burst from the screen.
Kazan matches him note for note, from the giddy first stages of their love down through its eventual deterioration and its attempts to rebuild again. As the daughter of acclaimed screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and granddaughter of the legendary director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), she shows she’s got the skills to honorably uphold her strong family tradition in cinema.
But it’s Dayton and Faris who are most welcome back. Here’s hoping it won’t take them another six years to find their next dream project.