In hindsight you wonder what took so long. Blurring the line between real and fictional is a beloved theme in literature and movies, everything from characters imagining entire episodes of their lives because of psychosis (see the work of David Lynch) to simply keeping the fact that certain aspects of the story aren’t true from the audience.
So a character who spends so long dreaming about the perfect partner only to bring him or her to life with the power of the imagination seems a no-brainer. With such a rich literary history and such foil for dramatic and comic tension, Ruby Sparks looked like the best indie romantic comedy to come around in ages.
Maybe the weight of expectation was what let it down a little. Every aspect – from the characters to the set-ups to the dramatic arc – feels just a little too reigned in, punches pulled. It’s not altogether a bad thing – in a big studio version of the same film, the hero’s brother and confidante (Chris Messina) would be a profane stoner who dresses weird and speaks only lines that have been comedy focused-grouped. Here’s he’s just a normal guy and that’s a breath of fresh air, but in the big studio version he would at least have provided some of the juice that’s missing from the rest of the film.
Part of the problem is Paul Dano. There’s no argument he’s a great actor after ”There Will Be Blood”, but here he’s just way too insipid and twitchy. Obviously the character of introverted writer Calvin is supposed to be shy and unsure as he struggles with writer’s block and what appears to be a lifelong case of social anxiety, but he tiptoes through the entire movie to the extent where you’ll pray he’ll cut loose and raise his voice even once.
Screenwriter Zoe Kazan plays Ruby, a girl Calvin imagines exists after seeing a girl who catches his eye one day, proceeding to write exhaustive descriptions of her. One day he comes home to find the girl in question living in his trendy Los Feliz Hills apartment, apparently under the impression the two have been in a relationship for some time.
After he gets over the shock (and it’s when he reacts to the perky, spritely Ruby with utter terror that Calvin’s wishy-washiness gets the most irritating) and realises other people can see and hear Ruby – therefore rendering her quite real, Calvin lets himself fall for her hard.
Ruby is the perfect girlfriend, bringing Calvin quickly back to life, giving him enthusiasm for life again and even filling the gap writing left in him. But the Act II story pivot is that even though she’s been conjured up by some voodoo or other Ruby is real (a fact that’s never explained and might be a problem for some audiences), and she wants her own life. The insecure Calvin can’t quite handle it, not even after Ruby proves a big hit with his family.
He’s been trying not to think about the power he still wields over her, but as his brother keeps pointing out, he can just write the aspects of her character he wants. Instead of ‘big tits’ like his brother encourages, Calvin writes a series of increasingly convoluted characteristics and traits for Ruby, which she unknowingly and immediately adheres to. In the funniest examples, she suddenly speaks only French, and when Calvin decides to give her an extra dose of devotion to him she clings to him life a limpet everywhere he goes.
But it can’t last forever, and you wonder what sort of climax is coming for the characters. Will Calvin somehow relinquish the insidious power nobody should have over anybody else, or will Ruby find some way of decoupling from the magic that created her and find her place in the real world?
The answer is neither, and what does happen is both a little anti-climatic and somewhat undone by the tacked on happy ending coda that follows it. ”Ruby Sparks” is a great, romantic idea that has lots of potential but just kind of ambles along where it should have broken into a run at times.