That old saying “talent runs in the family” couldn’t ring any truer for actress, playwright Zoe Kazan. The granddaughter of film and theater director Elia Kazan, who became a legend alongside Marlon Brando, she is also the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and his wife Robin Swicord. Paying her dues with several small roles on stage and screen, most notably as Leonardo DiCaprio’s mistress in Revolutionary Road, wrote the screenplay for Ruby Sparks as a vehicle for herself and real life boyfriend, actor Paul Dano. The film marks a return to the directing chair for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris who six years ago received much acclaim for their debut, Little Miss Sunshine. A modern take on the classic Pygmalion myth, the film is not just a romantic comedy, but a meditation on the difficulties of relationship building that gets surprisingly dark at times.
Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a frustrated and lonely novelist who hasn’t has a hit book since his debut at the age of 19. Success hasn’t spoiled Calvin, but made him rather miserable as he spends most of his time in his lavish condo staring at his typewriter or walking his small dog Scotty, who as he puts it “pees like a girl.”. Still reeling months after being dumped by his girlfriend of five years, Calvin finds no solace in girls who want to bed him only because he’s published a successful novel. Encouragement from his married horndog brother (Chris Messina) or his sympathetic shrink (Elliot Gould) doesn’t seem to help and his sleazy agent (Steve Coogan) only cares about pimping the tenth anniversary edition of his novel or what the boy wonder may be working on next.
Inspired by a recurring dream where he meets a beautiful and free spirited artist at the park, Calvin’s writer’s block vanishes when he puts his idea of what this young woman may be like to paper. Falling in love with his literary creation, Calvin is shocked one morning to find a flesh and blood version of Ruby Sparks (Kazan) standing in his apartment and calling herself his girlfriend. Can this be real? Has the girl of his dreams now become a reality? Or is this some kind of prank initiated by his brother, the only person who has read his manuscript?
After discovering that Ruby is in fact very real, Calvin just accepts the magic that has entered his life and engages in a whirlwind love affair with who he considers to be the perfect girl. A girl that has no idea that she’s Calvin’s fictional creation. Ruby is so real that she’s a free thinker, a being with the ability to evolve and though she and Calvin start out happy, where he is content, living an uncomplicated and boring lifestyle with just the two of them, she wants more and starts to grow beyond him. The problem is, Calvin can’t handle it. He can’t handle the fact that his new girlfriend wants to do more, wants to be independent and maybe even find a job, rather than stay in his condo all day and live off him so she can paint. His creation is growing, but he hasn’t. Ruby starts to become more sympathetic than Calvin who is just happy with the way things are. In one scene he leaves her alone at a party where she doesn’t know anyone, while he goes off to argue with his ex (Deborah Ann Woll) about why their relationship failed.
Dano and Kazan are a perfect onscreen match for each other with their quirky awkwardness and eccentricities that often make up the adorable parts of a working relationship. They don’t look like glamorous Hollywood actors and make a cute couple that mesh together rather well, which is why when friction develops between their characters it feels all the more realistic. As Ruby begins to grow, so does Calvin’s temptation to pull that manuscript from his desk drawer and rewrite her as he sees fit. It first begins a method of proving to his brother that Ruby is in fact his creation. Later it becomes slight modifications to Ruby’s attitude or behavior, all of which don’t turn out as Calvin intended. In almost every relationship one partner accuses the other of attempting to control them at some point. For the naïve Ruby, we fear that when she eventually lets those words fly, in his desperation, Calvin may very well show her the truth.
Kazan’s screenplay explores the frustrating experience of having a romantic interest that doesn’t live up to one’s expectations. In Calvin’s case, he has the power to modify or enhance the aspects of Ruby he does like, but we all know absolute power corrupts absolutely. Despite the story’s charming and whimsical nature, Kazan is smart enough to know that when writing about relationships, you can’t focus on the good and ignore the bad, boldly taking her screenplay into dark and often disturbing territory. Dayton and Ferris along with Dano and Kazan, achieve a proper balance between light and dark, never betraying the characters, despite the fact that their flaws can often make them seem unlikable. It’s those flaws that give them dimension and the story the necessary dramatic weight that makes it work. Ruby Sparks eventually stumbles with a conclusion that’s rather far-fetched, but Kazan has written a rather powerful and potent examination of love and control that’s one of the year’s most memorable and original films.