Sometimes the problem is you. It's not always a comfortable realization to arrive at but it's an observation that drives Ruby Sparks, the latest work by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). The film peers into the life of Calvin (Paul Dano), a former wunderkind author whose single great novel still has him on the speaking circuit, labeled a genius by adoring fans and academics. Fast forward about ten years and, other than a few short stories, Calvin's been unable to follow up on that initial success. In fact, he's fallen into a long dry spell with no writing at all. Adding insult to injury, his last girlfriend left him shortly after the death of his father.
Out of nowhere, Calvin begins dreaming of a mysterious and beautiful woman. The vision triggers something in him, kicking him out of his rut and, after being pushed by his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins to write about the woman of his dreams. And then things get weird. The girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan, doing double duty here as screenwriter), appears in his apartment, seamlessly picking up the role that he's written for her; she's his girlfriend. It's a bit of a shock at first (Calvin tells his brother that it's like Harvey, except "she's not an eight-foot rabbit"). Before long, though, he relaxes into the idea, quickly becoming comfortable living with and loving a woman who is essentially the product of a first draft.
Ruby's transformation from a simple fantasy into something far more complex--gasp, a real woman with actual emotional baggage--throws a wrench into Calvin's initial joy over her appearance. But, since Calvin wrote Ruby into existence, he assumes (correctly) that he can change her behaviors via a few rewrites. Whether or not he uses or abuses that power and what it says about his own ability to connect with others soon becomes the central conflict that haunts Ruby Sparks. When we finally get the opportunity to meet Calvin's ex, her insight on their failed relationship, paired with Calvin's choices regarding Ruby, lay his flaws bare for us to see.
This impulse to tinker with the basic ingredients of others has been explored before in films like S1mOne, Stranger Than Fiction, and, even Vertigo. Ruby Sparks is far better than those first two films but, of course, has nothing on Hitchcock's masterpiece (recently declared the best film of all-time by Sight & Sound). Outside of such comparisons, it's a fine diversion with good performances all around, even if it often feels episodic and can't quite figure out how to effectively resolve the tension of its third act as it heads towards the still satisfying conclusion.
Ruby Sparks opens at the Regal Fox Tower on Friday, August 3rd. More info available here.
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