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Ruby Sparks – Jonathon Dayton, Valerie Faris: Thoughtful, imaginative, perceptive and different

Ruby and Calvin



Ruby Sparks – Jonathon Dayton, Valerie Faris

Thoughtful, imaginative, perceptive and different. Not common epithets for Hollywood romantic comedies nowadays so don’t let this quirky, charming little gem disappear before you catch up with it.

Playwright turned screenwriter Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia, holds the movie together as the eponymous Ruby Sparks. Real life boyfriend Paul Dano is engaging as one-book, Salinger-like wunderkind Calvin, now afflicted with writer’s block.

The exploration of ideas through language, character and situation perhaps defines the playwright’s art: language, dialogue, lie at the heart of theatre. The radical difference in form that movies represent includes these elements but the epicentre of expression shifts: the almost unlimited possibilities of image and action that modern movie technology offers, radically changes the balance between what we see and what we hear, and therefore our understanding and response to both.

The bad ends of this spectrum are easily recognized in both cases: didactic plays where characters preach the ideas the playwright tries to communicate instead of allowing them to emerge naturally from the dramatic interplay of a carefully constructed synthesis of character and context. In contrast, Hollywood’s obsession is often with action movies where the visceral depiction of events dominates to such a degree that the weakly drawn participants in those events are either mere cardboard – and who cares what happens to cardboard? – or shallow stereotypes about whom we know little and care less.

Kazan’s achievement in Ruby is rather special: she enables us to buy into the clearly contrived dramatic device at the heart of her story through careful and affectionate characterisation and perceptive, truthful insights into the emotions and behaviour of her characters and the situations in which she places them.

Likeable but geeky, emotionally diffident Cal, serially unsuccessful with women after the sudden loss of an earlier 5-year relationship, is challenged by Dr Rosenthal, his psychoanalyst (Elliott Gould) to overcome his writer’s block by writing just one page about a girl who likes him despite his geekiness and will even accept his equally stressed out, oddball dog Scotty who “pees like a girl” and has been seriously unsuccessful in the objective for which he was acquired – facilitating contacts with women. Most importantly, Rosenthal gives Cal permission for this sketch to be badly written.

When Cal dreams of an encounter with such a girl he wakes up and is driven to write about her. Hence Ruby Sparks is ‘born’: a quirky artist who happens on Cal and Scotty (between pees – the dog that is) walking in the forest. Our inner fears that this is going to be another lazy, clichéd, it-was-all-a-dream Bobby Ewing moment, are soon thankfully allayed; and when it is clear that everyone else, including his sceptical brother Harry, can see, touch and relate to Ruby, the ghostly, other-dimension devices of other movies are also eschewed.

His writer’s block now blown away, Cal extends his 1 page assignment from Rosenthal into a novel about his relationship with Ruby and all his desires and hopes and fears within it. He gradually discovers that anything he writes about Ruby comes true. He proves this to an incredulous Harry by writing that Ruby speaks fluent French and when the brothers then join Ruby downstairs …..Mon Dieu!

There’s a lot of fun in this. More wry and gentle smiles than guffaws but none the less welcome for that. Alfa-male Harry of course sees the manipulative, sexual and other possibilities of this very quickly – blow-jobs on demand etc etc. To her credit and our relief, Kazan treats this for what it is: a funny one off idea. But she avoids the pitfall of so many crudely drawn, lazily written modern ’comedies’ for which this would be the central joke of the movie to be endlessly over-played and crassly exploited.

Cal and Ruby’s relationship develops and deepens but when, naturally, as in any ‘real’ relationship, conflicts and disagreements arise; the subversive possibilities of his position as not writing about Ruby but writing her, become too tempting to resist. Here the device works extremely well in inviting us to consider the nature of loving relationships where give and take, sensitivity and a willing unselfishness towards another are key. We see Cal’s temptation and feel his dilemma: love is so precious because it is willingly given; and jealousy so corrosive because it is assumes the choice of betrayal.

There are age old questions here no less interesting or perplexing because raised in such an unpretentious little story, enhanced rather than diminished by its slightly magic realist echoes. Ruby has been likened to Pygmalian but in a way is I think more interesting as she is a pure ‘idea’ of the imagination not the animation of a physical object. True there is a brief visual reference to Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes but Ruby is a more grounded, less fevered magical realist piece.

Kazan briefly follows the logic of her own ideas and characters into some dark territory but maintains the overall positive balance of the movie rather well. Ruby Sparks does not pretend to be a profound movie but it is innovative, intelligent, well written, beautifully acted – especially by Kazan herself – and explores some central ideas about relationships with a quiet assurance that satisfies. One especially pleasing quality is that you never quite know where it is going next in terms of tone and emotion: and it avoids the yawning pitfalls that so many other modern romantic comedies jump straight into. It flatters rather than insults one’s intelligence; and engages rather than assaults our sensibilities.

Directors Dayton and Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) do Kazan’s neat little story full justice; with unobtrusive but imaginative cinematography and neat, precise editing – all aided by an excellent score and soundtrack that helps the variations in tone to flow seamlessly. A slightly less effective sequence when Cal takes Ruby to meet hippy Mom Gertrude (Annette Bening) and driftwood furniture maker dad Mort (Antonio Banderas) works well enough offering a few more smiles; but is sensibly not prolonged when it runs out of humorous steam.

My wife and I both found this one a nice surprise. We had no great expectations but were both surprised and impressed. This is a really engaging movie with a lot of charm and very real and rather rare qualities not least in the cleverly fashioned and well-developed screenplay.

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