LA Film Festival’s secret screening may not have been the next big blockbuster, but “Ruby Sparks”, the first follow-up to “Little Miss Sunshine” from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris, may have been an even more welcome and fitting offering to the film-loving crowd that gathered at LA Live. A whimsical, quirky and inventive romantic comedy with some murky gender politics, the film, for all its highs and lows, ushers in a stunning breakout moment for screenwriter and co-star Zoe Kazan.
Paul Dano, with depth and in turns subtle kindness and menace, plays once successful novelist Calvin, who’s being crushed under the weight of his own potential. “Don’t use that word,” he sneers when his agent calls him a genius, a label he has clearly struggled with since becoming a bestselling author at age 19. Now, at 29, he not only has writer’s block, but he has no friends outside his older brother (played by a scene-stealing Chris Messina) and is still bitter over his break-up with aspiring writer Lila (Deborah Ann Woll). Out of nowhere, he dreams of a girl, and begins to write. As he concedes to his shrink (Elliot Gould), he’s falling in love with his creation, and is writing just to spend more time with her.
Ruby Sparks, as Calvin names her and as played by Kazan (who also wrote the script, offering an interesting dichotomy between onscreen and offscreen female empowerment), is your typical quirky, hipster dream girl. She’s a painter, she dresses in bright colors, she’s had plenty of bad relationships and maybe all along, as Calvin writes her to say to him, “I’ve just been looking for you.” One day, Calvin wakes up and Ruby is there in his kitchen, in real life. When other people can see her and he’s reassured that he hasn’t gone crazy, he puts his manuscript away. Ruby, his perfect girl, is real and he has no more need for make-believe.
Turning the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope on its head, Calvin is horrified to discover that the perfect girl he wrote for himself, as she begins to find herself as a real person in the real world, would probably not be interested in staying in a relationship with a man like himself. He begins to write her again, trying to mold her into the perfect fit she was for him before she gained independence. The film builds to sometimes uncomfortably dark places to illustrate just how sick the idea of a woman existing to please a man is, but unfortunately is unable to do much to allow Ruby any agency. Instead, just like every other movie revolving around MPDGs, the journey is entirely Calvin’s.
Kazan is the real breakout story here though, in both her well-rounded performance and in her razor-sharp writing. Inspired by the Greek myth of Pygmalian who sculpted a woman and began to fall in love with her, it’s a tough kind of story to wrap up without ending it all in total tragedy, but Kazan does so admirably and always in unexpected fashion, with things left inevitably open ended. The filmmakers say they wanted an ending that matched the whimsical, mysterious tone of the rest of the film, and in that, they have succeeded perfectly.