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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina, Steve Coogan
DIRECTED BY
Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
SCREENPLAY
Zoe Kazan
MPAA RATING
Rated R
RUNNING TIME
104 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
Fox Searchlight
 "Ruby Sparks" in Ways Big and Small 
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Much like the film itself, the marketing campaign that Fox Searchlight has put together for Ruby Sparks is a tad deceptive. Fox is emphasizing the film being the long awaited directorial follow-up for Little Miss Sunshine co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. While there are certainly momentary flirtations with the Little Miss Sunshine spirit to be found within Ruby Sparks, there are more appropriate comparisons to be found in films such as (500) Days of Summer or, in its darkest moments, the Jim Carrey/Kate Winslet film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The first half of Ruby Sparks is for the most part a rather lighthearted romantic comedy/fantasy. However, long about the time the film hits its midway point we're treated to a rather abrupt about face that turns the film away from its rather fluffy foundation and into one of the year's more thought-provoking and intensely moving films.

The film stars Paul Dano, who was the quiet kid in Little Miss Sunshine and gained quite a bit of acclaim for his work alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, as 29-year-old Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer whose first book at 19 turned him into a household name. Unfortunately for Calvin, ten years later he's mostly riding on the coattails of that early success and has yet to even produce his follow-up novel. Instead, he bides his time hanging out with his equally neurotic dog named Scottie, processing his raging insecurities with his therapist (Elliott Gould) and hanging out with his brother (Chris Messina) and sister-in-law. One day when he's in a particularly intense fit of angst, his therapist challenges him to write a page about this place he's in even if he writes it badly.

So, Calvin writes. And writes. And writes. And writes.

Then, one day. She appears. This woman, his seemingly perfect woman, appears out of nowhere in his home and into his life and suddenly this introverted, self-absorbed and socially awkward writer with one relationship to his credit finds himself the boyfriend of one spirited, confident, passionate, sweet, funny and infinitely adorable Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan).

To chalk Ruby Sparks up as merely a romantic comedy, however, would be a serious mistake. While the film does, indeed, sparkle as a romantic comedy it also shines in its more dramatic moments as the relationship between Calvin and Ruby takes on a darker tone and as Calvin begins to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. In addition to its threads of romance and comedy, Ruby Sparks truly becomes an extraordinary film because Kazan, who penned the script, has the guts to take it directions that you seldom see a romantic comedy travel. In addition to rather poignantly exploring the relationship of a writer with his creation, Ruby Sparks rather painfully explores what happens when control becomes the aim of a relationship rather than authenticity, heart and freedom.

Ruby Sparks is the kind of film that will have you leaving the theater in tremendous thought, with its multiple threads have multiple possible interpretations and the film's fluidity in moving between fantasy and reality unfolds with such ease that even in the film's most fantastic moments you'll likely find yourself completely immersed in the unfolding story.

Paul Dano has always been a bit of an intriguing actor, his voice possessing a monotone quality not far removed from that of Michael Cera with even his face wearing an almost emotionless quality that can be occasionally quite maddening. I'll confess to having had significant concerns about Dano's appearance here in a film that obviously required a rather wide range of emotions.

I needn't have worried.

While Dano was good in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, his performance in Ruby Sparks is likely his best performance yet. Dano experiences several abrupt shifts of tone within his character throughout the film, with Calvin starting off as an almost emotionally paralyzed and socially awkward writer before shifting into the joyfulness of a loving relationship, the fearfulness of losing that relationship and, finally, the out of control spiral that comes when one desperately tries to cling to that which simply cannot be controlled. There are moments in the film's final act when Dano borders on genuinely frightening, a glimpse that felt like it could be a glimpse into domestic violence yet also a glimpse that revealed the potential of this young man whose fantasy and reality cannot and will not peacefully co-exist.

As the creator of these characters, it should come as no surprise that Zoe Kazan completely embodies the person of Ruby Sparks. Kazan's Ruby is everything that Calvin is not - alive and spirited and filled with wonder and awe and a true desire to experience life in all its flawed glory. I've often thought of Miranda July when I watch Kazan on screen. Both are actresses who explore authentically and naturally the essence of humanity, but they do so by creating almost otherworldly stories and circumstances. Watching the blossoming Ruby suddenly begin to wilt is painful, incredibly painful, yet co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris never allow us to drown in those feelings. Ruby Sparks is far from a bummer of a film. Instead, it's a film that recognizes the truthfulness of romance is also filled with the harsh realities of daily life that pound into it day after and day like the waves of an ocean crashing into the shore.

The main reason that Ruby Sparks works so well is that, quite simply, it is perfectly cast. In addition to its stellar co-leads, Ruby Sparks benefits from a terrific Chris Messina as Calvin's caring yet wary brother. Elliott Gould, despite being saddled with playing a man who is clearly not the world's brightest therapist, is an absolute joy in a role that could have easily been a one-note toss away but ends up being so much more. As Calvin's mother and step-father, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas add tremendous depth to what could have looked like on paper as nothing but quirky characters straight out of Meet the Parents. Steve Coogan, who certainly has the ability to take a character larger than life, is instead successfully restrained as one of Calvin's key professional mentors.

Matthew Libatique, whose camera work on Black Swan won an Oscar, lenses Ruby Sparks beautifully while Nick Urata's original music manages to keep pace with the film despite, or maybe because of, all its shifts in tone and intent. What may be most impressive about Dayton and Faris's direction is just how perfectly paced Ruby Sparks is, with even the most abrupt changes of mood flowing almost seamlessly from one to the next without ever feeling jarring.

Dayton and Faris don't cater unnecessarily to the audience nor the audience's understanding of exactly what's going on in Ruby Sparks and exactly why this all happens. For some audience members, this may prove to be maddening. For others, it may be refreshingly ambiguous and full of possibilities.

While Ruby Sparks may be a tad too dark in spots to attract the wider audience that did Little Miss Sunshine, one can only hope that it does reach a wider audience because it truly is one of 2012's cinematic gems from Hollywood's indie world. Behind stellar performances from its ensemble cast and a terrific script from Zoe Kazan that is filled with heart, humor, honesty and courage, Ruby Sparks will make you want to fall in love the right way.

Or is that the write way?


© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic  

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