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Ruby Sparks
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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a One Author In Search Of His Character. . ."
1 stars

"Ruby Sparks" is the kind of movie where you come away from it with the sense that the film as a whole has been conceived as a sort of support system for the one key sequence that presumably inspired the whole enterprise. I do not object to this in theory because when you consider how many movies get made these days without one single sequence of note, the fact that the filmmakers have clearly made some kind of effort for at least one brief portion comes as some kind of relief. No, my objections are twofold and somewhat different. The first is that the sequence in question is not especially clever or unique--I have seen variations on its basic conceit in everything from lesser Stephen King short stories to a sketch from the less-than-hallowed Charles Rocket era of "Saturday Night Live"--and doesn't really offer much to allow viewers to overlook its patina of familiarity. The bigger problem is that everything leading up to and out of that sequence is obnoxious, insufferable and unwatchable as can be and that its smug sense of curdled whimsy will leave most viewers shaking their heads in disbelief.

Our hero--to stretch a once-proud word to its breaking point--is Calvin (Paul Dano), a once-promising writer who, in his teens, penned a novel that apparently had the cultural impact of the Bible, "Catcher in the Rye" and the last Harry Potter novel combined. Now ten years have passed and the only thing he has apparently published since then is a 10th-anniversary edition of that book--he spends most of his time moping about his house, staring at his typewriter (Yes, he still uses a typewriter--this is, after all, a hipster indie film and a simple laptop doesn't convey the necessary aura of quirk.) As part of a writing exercise from his well-meaning shrink (Elliott Gould), Calvin begins writing off-hand bits about a girl named Ruby Sparks, a brutally adorable lass with so much quirk that she comes across as what might result if every character Zooey Deschanel ever played were all somehow jammed into Natalie Portman's character from "Garden State." Things take a turn for the weird one morning when he wakes to discover that Ruby (Zoe Kazan) has somehow achieved physical form and is now sitting in his house eating cereal, leaving her underwear lying around and no doubt preparing to name the entire cast of "Girls" as possible subversives in testimony before Congress.

At first, Calvin thinks that he is hallucinating but he eventually realizes that not only is she real but that he can actually control any aspect of her personality just by adding it to his manuscript--if he wants her to suddenly speak French while juggling running chainsaws, all he has to do is type it out and she will.(Note--she doesn't actually juggle chainsaws in the film, possibly because that might have broken with the rest of the proceedings by making them briefly interesting. Zut Alors!)Even better--she doesn't seem to realize that she is a fictional character and that she could probably do better than Calvin, even given her admittedly peculiar circumstances. The two fall in love--well, he does while she is merely along for the ride--and for a brief period of time, everything seems to be going swimmingly as long as Ruby remains nothing more than a vague-but-adorable bag of ticks set off with a bow of winsomeness. When she begins to develop her own glimmers of personality and self awareness--even going so far as to go skinny-dipping with a rival author (Steve Coogan)--while Calvin seethes with jealousy that is exacerbated when he has a run-in with his ex-girlfriend. This all leads to the big scene that everyone is talking about in which Calvin informs Ruby that he created her and can do anything with her that he wants and proceeds to do just that by banging away at his typewriter with a rage while she jerks around as though she were auditioning for that stage version of "The Exorcist."

Unless you have somehow stumbled through life without being exposed to "Pygmalion," the basic premise of "Ruby Sparks" is one that will not seem wildly unfamiliar to most viewers but it is one that has the potential to spring off in any number of potentially interesting directions. Seeing as how it marks the first film from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since striking it big with their ridiculously overrated 2006 debut "Little Miss Sunshine," it could have explored the difficulties of reconnecting with the creative process after your first effort becomes an unexpected success. Seeing as how Kazan both wrote the screenplay and stars in it, it could be seen as a parable of the ways in which both writers and actresses find themselves being manipulated by those in power in order to get ahead in the business. It could work as a parable of the entire artistic process and how no matter how personal and specific a work may be to its author during its creation, it almost invariably transmogrifies in one way or another in regards to how it is interpreted or received as soon as it is released to the public.

Any one of these concepts, properly handled and nurtured, could have led to a reasonably intriguing and provocative film. Alas, "Ruby Sparks" is not that film because Kazan demonstrates even less genuine interest or curiosity in her creation than Calvin does in his. While it takes random stabs at deeper meaning and darker considerations here and there, they are only stabs and they come across as being just as forced as everything else. Although it is Ruby that is technically supposed to be the one-dimensional character being jerked around by the manipulations of an increasingly desperate author, Calvin ends up coming across as even less interesting--not only is it impossible to believe that he could have been the once-promising author of a celebrated novel, the notion that he has ever actually read anything that doesn't feature the phrase "for Dummies" in the title strains credulity. Beyond that, he is a hollow, whiny, manipulative jerk from start to finish but the film only rarely calls him out on that behavior and even then, none of it really sticks.

As for Ruby, I think that we are supposed to find her adorable while recognizing all the cliched notions of female behavior that she embodies. However, no matter how delightful she is supposed to be--at least according to everyone who meets her--Ruby strikes me as the kind of character that I would immediately flee to the next multiplex screen to avoid, even if "Battleship" were the only other offering. (She comes across as the kind of person who would buy every CD by Kate Bush and Fiona Apple to demonstrate how offbeat she is but never actually listens to them.) The only scene that really connects is the one in which Ruby discovers that she is indeed a figment of Calvin's imagination but it has so obviously been designed as a showcase scene that it co-exists uneasily with everything surrounding it and paints the plot into a corner that it only emerges from through the use of cliches so hackneyed that they almost come across as parody.

And even if one accepts "Ruby Sparks" simply as a cinematic calling card designed to display the talents of Kazan and, to a lesser extent, Dano, it doesn't work because neither one makes much of an impression. With the exception of "There Will Be Blood" (where he had the slight advantage of working with one of the best writer-directors working today), Paul Dano has become one of the more grating presences on the movie scene today and his work here will not disabuse anyone of that notion--he comes across as being like Michael Cera sans the range or the steely-eyed determination. Kazan is slightly more interesting but as star turns go, you will find any number of performances just as good or better in any number of films that play the festival circuit and then seemingly disappear from view. And even though every article about the film has taken delight in noting that Dano and Kazan are a couple in Real Life, whatever sparks (no pun intended) they may have struck in their personal lives have not carried over into their work because they are just as bland and uninteresting together as they are individually. By comparison, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas turn up briefly as Calvin's mother and her lover and even their material is as lame as everything else (their scenes are basically an extension of those SNL sketches where Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch played the bohemian couple prattling endlessly about their lusty hijinks), they at least manage to bring a spark of personality to the proceedings and when the film leaves them, most viewers will want to stay behind as well.

I know that "Ruby Sparks" has been getting good reviews in some places and that my avowed dislike for "Little Miss Sunshine" and most indie films featuring the whiny problems of privileged white people probably ensured that I was never going to like it under any circumstances. That may be true but it doesn't take away from the fact that it is rotten to its twee little core--even the characters from "Take This Waltz" might find it to be a bit too much for its own good--and my guess is that once all the dust settles, it is going to age as badly as "Little Miss Sunshine" and it doesn't even have the mitigating factors of the performances from Steve Carell and Alan Arkin to vaguely justify its existence. Let me put it this way--this is a film so bottomlessly irritating every possible way that the only way that it could have possibly been any worse is if Greta Gerwig had been cast as the female lead and the sad thing is that if she had been included as part of the proceedings, the end results wouldn't have been that much worse in the end.

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originally posted: 07/25/12 13:36:53
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User Comments

3/07/13 Monday Morning Elliott Gould's comback vehicle. Hmmm...too bad. 1 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  25-Jul-2012 (R)
  DVD: 30-Oct-2012

UK
  N/A

Australia
  25-Jul-2012
  DVD: 30-Oct-2012




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