Ruby Sparks: This Ruby Needed Some Serious Polish

At first, it seems Ruby Sparks is destined to satirize the pixie dreamgirls that seem to populate indie films. Then, it moves into standard romance territory, before sauntering into a lesson in relationship expectations not to mention artistic fulfillment. Oh, and they visit some wacky hippie parents. In short… much like the author within the film, the filmmakers don’t know what they want Ruby Sparks to be. It’s rarely funny, it’s rarely romantic, at times it tiptoes towards creepy, and the pace is consistently draggy. More importantly than any of that, it fails to say anything truthful– it’s content to play with stereotypes in hopes that its meta plot device will elevate the proceedings into something approaching philosophical depth. No such luck. Ruby doesn’t spark– it merely sits there.

The directors of Ruby Sparks, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, haven’t done a single film since their critically-acclaimed first film Little Miss Sunshine, over half a decade ago. The lead character in Ruby Sparks is an author (Paul Dano) who hasn’t written a single book since his critically-acclaimed first novel nearly a decade prior. Sidebar: for those who go in recognizing that parallel, the extended amount of time the film spends praising the “genius” and “generation defining” nature of the first novel is somewhat off-putting. The author’s therapist (Elliott Gould, always a welcome sight) recommends he write about the girl he’s been dreaming about, no matter how bad it is. Like in all films about writing, the author is inspired, cranking out hundreds of pages without eating or sleeping, all about this girl. Of course, this magical girl, perfect in her imperfections, magically appears one day in his apartment. Sidebar: Zoe Kazan plays the magical perfect girl, and she also wrote the script that goes into detail regarding just how lovable and magical she is… which is also somewhat off-putting.

I realize the points about Dayton/Faris and Kazan are perhaps unfair. I only bring them up because when a movie fails to engage you and its bizarre shifts in tone and direction of plot leave you befuddled, you begin searching for reasons as you watch why this film happened. The film has a few good ideas and individual scenes but no cohesion. No performances are noteworthy, save for Chris Messina as the author’s brother, the only character who seems rooted in reality. The first question he asks gets a cheap laugh: “are you going to give her bigger tits?” This seems crass, but since the author spent a good amount of time describing the affairs she had with teachers in school and proceeds to desexualize her completely when she appears, it does lead one to wonder why the film completely eschews the topic of sex… which seems to me to be a pretty important portion of most adult relationships. Perhaps it’s because sex is something that happens in real life, and both Ruby Sparks and the author who conjures her are shadows of romanticism, not actual human beings. She’s a quirky and spontaneous pixie girl, he’s a tormented writer daily staring at a typewriter searching for beauty. The actors work hard, but the characters carry no dimension.

It strikes me that dimension is difficult to create in an exercise that stems from such a meta origin. By having the titular character’s existence begin as an immediate commentary on unrealistic indie film objects of affection (Chris Messina rants when he first reads the author’s writing: “girls aren’t like this!”), you’ve already commented on the lack of realism by the time you set out to establish a *real* love connection. Trips to visit his estranged mother and a competitor in the literary world don’t seem genuine– they seem like distractions. You’ve conjured a woman with your mind! There are literally a million directions this topic can spin into– but instead, the author shelves his writing for nearly an hour of film to try to build chemistry between the two. Then, when the writing re-emerges, the film’s tried so hard to make her real that the author’s torment manifests itself in psychotic ways… and yet that manifestation is unearned, since he doesn’t explore the possibilities of this writing enough beforehand. By the time the too-tidy ending appeared, I felt relief. It’s the type of film where perhaps individual scenes cut out of context and aired on Youtube will seem high quality, yet in context remains unmoving. I wasn’t too put off by the lack of comedy or romance, but the lack of a point to the endeavor kind of made me wish I hadn’t manifested myself in that theater.

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~ by russellhainline on August 3, 2012.

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