Written by Kirk BairdRuby Sparks, the best non-superhero film of the summer and just out on DVD and Blu-ray, bucks many conventions of Hollywood romantic comedies. For one, it eschews the love-conquers-all motif of most romcoms. In this tale, love is the problem.
Ruby Sparks stars Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan—hardly household names, as is usually the case with studio romcoms. But as a real-life couple, their onscreen interactions have a life and physicality to them usually missing in romantic comedies. There is a subtle but distinct difference between chemistry and believability; an onscreen couple may look good together, but you may never believe them as a perfect match. Dano and Kazan pass muster in both categories.
Besides, the real star of the film is the screenplay by Kazan, the granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire). Ruby Sparks has the wit and emotional heft of a Nora Ephron story, and the roots of a Twilight Zone episode as a brilliant but struggling young author named Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) writes his ideal woman, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), into existence and discovers that he has complete control over her by whatever he types.
Calvin’s older brother Harry (Chris Messina in spot-on comic relief) believes Ruby is the perfect woman, one whose personality, mood, and sexual appetite can be changed at any whim by her creator. But as Ruby and Calvin’s relationship transitions from the honeymoon to the “normal” phase of love and its myriad complications, Calvin’s darker side emerges, and his need to control her threatens to undo both of them.
Ruby Sparks is funny and sweet, but there’s a persistent thread of dramatic tension running through the film, given Calvin’s godlike powers over Ruby. It’s only a matter of time before this control and his own foibles get the best of him. His final confrontation with Ruby, as he bangs commands into his typewriter, controlling her like a master puppeteer, is wrenching and horrifying and also heartbreaking, as his deep love for her is reduced to petty jealousy and cruel rage, while she can only look on, as his puppet, powerless to stop him.
Annette Bening has a small but nice turn as Calvin’s mother and Antonio Banderas as her artistic lover. Theirs is a loving relationship between equals that Calvin quietly aspires to but knows he can never have with Ruby.
There’s strong subtext in Ruby Sparks, which co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring out in subtle ways. This real-life couple also teamed up to direct Little Miss Sunshine, which also featured Dano, and Ruby Sparks is a similarly quirky comedy-drama, only with a darker third act. Ruby Sparks is a complicated love story that doesn’t settle for easy resolutions. And it’s all the better—and more realistic—for it.