“Ruby Sparks” – 4 STARS

ruby sparks posterThere are some movies that you know you have no interest in seeing from the first moment you hear of them. Whether you’re repelled by the story, the director, or someone in the cast, certain films can instantly turn you off. That was my initial reaction to “Ruby Sparks”. Since I’m an official Paul Dano hater, “Ruby Sparks” was immediately thrown into my ‘do not watch’ bin. But you know there are also movies that completely catch you off guard. Despite your lack of interest or minuscule expectations, some movies come out of the blue and totally surprise you. That was my reaction after finally seeing “Ruby Sparks”.

I really hadn’t given this film much consideration at all. But after reading a few recent positive reviews and desperately needing a movie for my Netflix queue, I decided to give “Ruby Sparks” a look. I’m glad I did. This is a smart and fresh romantic comedy that looks at control issues, insecurities, and the failures of people to look inward when it comes to solving a relationship problem. The film takes its unique idea and makes it work thanks to a superb script, nice direction, and yes, even a good performance from Paul Dano.

Zoe Kazan wrote and stars in this film about a struggling writer named Calvin (played by Kazan’s real life boyfriend Dano). Calvin captured lightning in a bottle at age 19 with a best selling novel that took the country by storm. But since that time he’s been unable to latch onto a good idea for a follow up. Calvin also has a poor track record when it comes to relationships. He spends the majority of his time alone with his dog Scotty dwelling on a long past breakup with a girl named Lila. Calvin’s jerky but caring brother Harry (Chris Messina) tries to help him with his depression and his therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) gives him various writing assignments to try and provide him with the emotional and career push he needs.

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Then something miraculous happens. Calvin has a dream where he has a lovely encounter with a girl in a park. He wakes up and immediately feels inspired to write about her. Day and night he enthusiastically writes about Ruby Sparks and falls for her more with each word he types. Then one morning Calvin is astonished to find Ruby (Kazan) in his house – a living, breathing embodiment of all he’s written. This provides several obvious complications for Calvin but it also offers some interesting possibilities for him. Could this be the one chance for him to have the girl of his dreams (yes, I actually went there)?

I don’t want to go much further into the story at risk of giving too much away. Lets just say the movie makes Calvin face a number of relationship questions and moral quandaries. With a few punches on his typewriter he’s able to change or adjust Ruby in any way he sees fit. But is that love? Is that what relationships are all about? Are our fantasies good measuring sticks for companionship? You’ll find these types of questions cleverly nestled between some good subtle humor and a touch of romance. I really responded to it and that’s mainly due to Kazan’s slick, intelligent script. This was her screenwriting debut and she shows an amazing knack for telling a good story while bucking conventional methods. The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris keep Kazan’s story moving with energy and fluidity. At least most of the time. The film does hit a lull at the midway point but the directors quickly change directions which gets things back on track, right up to the satisfying ending.

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It would be unfair for me to finish the review without talking about Paul Dano. He gives a really good performance here. Now I still stand by my assertion that he’s only good in certain and very specific roles. In fact, Kazan wrote this part with him in mind. But this is perfect for him and he nails it. Kazan is also very good in a small but tricky role. There is also good work from Messina and Gould as well as Annette Benning as Calvin’s free-spirited mother and Antonio Banderas as her peculiar boyfriend.

Let me sum this all up by saying “Ruby Sparks” was a pleasant surprise. I never expected to enjoy this movie nearly as much as I did. It may sputter in a spot or two and some of the characters may not feel as genuine as they should. But the acting is strong and the writing is fantastic. That was more than enough to bring this unique story alive for me. While Paul Dano still isn’t an instant box office draw for me, I believe that with the right material he can be good. And “Ruby Sparks” has me really excited to see what Kazan writes next. For me, she’s the one who shines the brightest from this film.