DIRECTED BY JONATHAN DAYTON and VALERIE FARISSTARRING: PAUL DANO, ZOE KAZAN, CHRIS MESSINA, TONI TRUCKS, AASIF MANDVI, DEBORAH ANN WOLL with STEVE COOGAN, ANNETTE BENING, ANTONIO BANDERAS and ELLIOT GOULD
The scariest thing about writing about writing is the possibility of being confined to just that. Authors can get carried away describing the creative process in an elaborate metaphor that can make up the entire length of their work. It is such cause for alienation if the protagonist of a story is going to be relatable only in as far as the reader/viewer identifies with the process of writing, where the crisis does not go any farther. I could be fighting a thousand demons, warding off insanity doing my own little thing, when it would only add to my frustration that I had watched something that could very well have been about me and life, except that it had decided not to be.
Ruby Sparks is troublesome, in that way. She is the figment of author Calvin Weir Fields’ imagination. He is someone who might have found acclaim a little too early, and is played by Paul Dano, an actor of whom you can say the same. To tell a long story short, she is a character who comes to him, whom he writes about and who comes to life, as a consequence. She is also a girl whom he can – conveniently – fall in love with, because she is not real. She is not a person, like brother Harry (Chris Messina) tells him. She is a bunch of characteristics you can’t quite wrap around your head, where he wrote them all down in his own kind of meet-cute. She comes along as an immediate solution, he goes along in as much as she works.
There is a significant amount of self-assurance that he would have felt about his decision to stick to her, but only as much as he would be uncertain all the same. He could write her to his whims, but he chooses not to. At first thought, it could be seen as a self-righteous gesture. On second thoughts, however, there is as much of a hazard in keeping her under control, as there is in freeing her. This is where we get back to the creative process, again, for this is about how much an author can let his character(s) take over the course of his story, where, the story – this time – happens to be his life itself.
A welcome extension of this question could be this one – how much can you write your own life? Granted that you already have, so to say, defined the girl whom you can decidedly be in love with. How effectively can you write yourself to continue to be in love with her, where you would want to give her as much agency as you would want her to give you, which is – essentially – you giving yourself the right to call the shots? In earthly parlance, that is called being a control-freak. Calvin is constantly branded as one; Ruby makes it a point to put him in his place, at that.
It is both important and mentionable that Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of the legendary Elia Kazan) is writer of Ruby Sparks, in which she plays Ruby Sparks the character as well. The very idea that an imaginary character in a film is conceived by the one who played her makes you ask the obvious question – what is the construct of Calvin like, in Ruby Sparks’ eyes? She is an artist and an unconditional lover, like she is introduced. Calvin could be the painting who jumped out of her frame. It would be a curious mess of meta-reality if we were to discover that Calvin is as much of a figment of her imagination as she is, of his. His moodiness would then be both cause and effect of his self-determination, which is actually not. Neither would hers be. These would then be two people who try to control each other in as much as they would want themselves to be set free – so they can love beyond their control.
Everything else in the film is gimmicky. In my eyes, Ruby Sparks could have had any given plotline. It is a romantic comedy only because it was made to be. The meet-the-parents sequence was necessary in as much as it contributed to runtime. There has to be a therapist (Elliott Gould) because Calvin can’t be someone who is completely sure of himself. That would make him God, where fiction is about lesser beings. If we were to write about Gods, we would begin and end at the very first line that we read. Unless the God in question flexed some muscle in action sequences, or talked the talk like Morgan Freeman.
The conclusion shall not be a spoiler when you completely expect it, where it is the magnitude of your expectation that renders the event of it happening sweeter than it would have been. Ruby Sparks becomes an obvious next novel of Calvin’s – he calls it the Girlfriend where I was thankful he didn’t write a second eponymous thing. Ruby tells him her friend found the book to be pretentious, but that she liked it, nonetheless. I wondered if I could say the same about the film. It is the second film of Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and they are – needless to say – a delight to be welcomed back, especially with the dexterity with which they handle a host of neurotic characters. Which was their specialty, so to say, in their first film that compulsorily couldn’t have had a single, focused central character.
Ruby Sparks has one. It is too much about Calvin Weir-Fields, the author. By that I do not request an equal share of screen-space for every actor in the film – I’d have been outraged had Antonio Banderas done any more than work the chainsaw, or had Annette Bening walked us through her house any further. I only mean that the film is less about Calvin Weir-Fields, the person, than it is about Calvin Weir-Fields, the author. He is someone who, in Harry’s words, doesn’t know women. Or, rather, he knows only as much about them to be able to fantasize. Ruby, on the other hand, has a Moth collection of ex-boyfriends, some of them twice as old as she is. This is – equally – a fantasy, as it is a cause of frustration. I was strongly reminded of Holden McNeill (Ben Affleck) in Chasing Amy, also about an author chasing his ideal, only to feel threatened by her and letting that insecurity of his get the better of him. Having asserted her as a loving, sexual being, there is only so much that Calvin can control. A little more of that helplessness – like we observe in the conversation between the two brothers beside the grill – could have rendered this film a little morose than cute - which is perhaps what I was looking for.
Doesn’t change the fact that Ruby Sparks is possibly one of the more solid, not that original (there is a man by the name of Charlie Kauffman, you know?) but smart, nonetheless, films from last year – intense, intricate and hilarious, with a protagonist who is endearing even as he’s detestable, like in a Coen Brothers movie. Too bad I couldn’t tweak the film a little like Calvin could tweak Ruby – it isn’t reassuring enough to know that the author is just about as much of a man as the one who makes a coffee-stop between work and home, not to write but to cool it off. I guess I was looking for a humbler experience, in a film I couldn’t control.