If Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife directing team who burst onto the scene with the 2006 crowd-pleaser “Little Miss Sunshine,” intended for their latest film, “Ruby Sparks,” to directly represent the human condition, then their effort should be regarded as a failure. Teaming with writer Zoe Kazan, Dayton and Faris take their high-concept–a bestselling young author (Paul Dano) begins writing a novel starring the girl of his dreams (Kazan), only to find her magically come to life–in mostly obvious, expected directions (save for the striking finale). As a result, the movie rarely contains the level of organic unpredictability required for the audience to view the characters as real people rather than mere ploys of a narrative gimmick.
However, while the characters in “Ruby Sparks” often seem more like pawns than humans because of the clear presence of directorial deliberation, the movie packs uncanny power on another level: It engages the viewer’s sense of wonder through its premise in the abstract. The filmmakers’ predictable execution of the concept–Dano’s Calvin and Kazan’s Ruby fall into obsessive love, as he designed, until she develops freewill and needs some space, causing him to attempt to regain control over her by continuing the novel–actually works out well because it allows the viewer ample time to zone out and entertain what they would do if they were Calvin. The question is fascinating: If you could write yourself a soulmate, would you do it and, if so, how would you approach the task? “Ruby Sparks” itself may not say much about man’s longing for perfection in his better half, but the movie’s ability to get the viewer thinking on the topic may yield even more powerful results.
The film’s engagement of the viewer’s imagination is as much a result of Kazan’s star-making performance as it is her concept. Even though Ruby’s character arc unfolds mostly as the viewer would expect, Kazan conveys the young woman with such a distinct presence–a combination of sex-appeal, endearing naiveté, and blissful energy–that she makes the excitement of Calvin’s wild discovery tangible. Thus, even if the viewer can’t connect directly with Calvin, a prefab depressed twenty-something who could easily be replaced by dozens of similar characters from other Amerindies, they can connect with his thirst for the love and empathy of another because Kazan so perfectly serves as its manifestation. Further, while Ruby’s eventual alienation from Calvin is not poignant due its clear narrative orchestration, Kazan’s performance itself achieves an authenticity capable of provoking thought on the inherent themes about control in relationships.
Another positive attribute of “Ruby Sparks” is that it doesn’t go overboard with its central gimmick simply for the sake of heightening the dramatic stakes. A Hollywood production would have likely spent the bulk of its runtime entertaining the question of whether Ruby is actually real or not, before serving up a big twist that she was an actress hired by Calvin’s family to help him out of his persistent depression. Under Dayton, Faris, and Kazan’s control, however, there is never any doubt that Ruby is “real” and that Calvin’s prose somehow supernaturally controls her. They explore the gimmick to its logical extreme, but their approach is nonetheless straightforward and doesn’t pull any tricks on the viewer. Certainly, it would have been nice had the filmmakers been able to imbue “Ruby Sparks” with a more emotional center, but their existential employment of Kazan’s unique concept to provoke self-realization in the viewer is plenty effective. Those willing to accept the film on its own terms and engage the themes that are applicable to their personal lives should end up satisfied by the experience.