There is a familiar mantra in the profession of writing, which of course appears in Ruby Sparks. Write what you know.
This has lead to writers writing about writing. Inevitably, that development has lead to masturbatory fiction of writers writing about writers being awesome and important. In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, his co-main character, Michael Blomkvist, is a thin facsimile of himself; an intrepid, middle-aged magazine journalist that somehow has every woman he meets throwing themselves at him sexually through no effort of his own. (One of the reasons I enjoyed David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation was that it dialed down this element.) Californication features a sex-addled writer portrayed by David Duchovny. And let us not forget the moment when M. Night Shyamalan revealed his egomaniacal tendencies casting himself as a writer whose work will change the world.
These are but a few examples of the type of metafictional Mary Sues that have permeated the popular culture on the male end. Ruby Sparks is a bit of a twist, because Zoe Kazan has written and portrayed not the writer, herself, in the film, but the creation of a writer played by Paul Dano (her real-life beau). The writer plays the creation while the creation is the writer. Is your head swimming yet?
It may be equally masturbatory for Kazan to play Ruby since the story is about how women are mystical, magical creatures that are far more complex than any man can understand, even one that sprouts fully-formed from the imagination like a manic pixie Athena. In the way Linus from Peanuts said, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, you’re the Charlie Browniest,” so goes that of all the manic pixie girls in filmdom, Ruby is the manic pixie girliest. The way this constitutes the main character’s “dream woman” may possibly be a commentary on that particular type of character’s ascension within modern character archetypes with one of the characters espousing of the inherent flaws of such women in the real world. But however self-servicing the plot and the role may be, the fact that it’s different from what we’ve come to expect helps make it enjoyable.
Essentially, Dano is an author named Calvin Weir-Fields who made a big splash as a teenager, creating what is considered to be the Catcher in the Rye of a new generation. Don’t worry about missing that bit. The Salinger references are beaten into submission. To cure his writer’s block, he is seeing a psychiatrist. The doctor urges him to write something about his dog and a dream he had, especially if it’s terrible. The girl in that dream has begun appearing nightly and Calvin finds himself inspired. Thusly, he begins writing more than he has been able to in years of being stymied by overhyped expectations for his follow-up novel. Eventually it becomes an obsession for him to “spend time with her.” Then one day, the girl he has dubbed Ruby suddenly appears in his house like she’s always been there. She’s cute, has bangs, wears brightly colored tights and is generally Zooey Deschanel concentrate. Telling only his brother, Calvin decides to just go with it and thus starts his roller coaster of emotional instability as he faces the thought of inadequacy for his own creation that is spiraling out of his control. Calvin doesn’t want to share what he’s created with the world and tries to horde her like Smaug and his gold.
The plot of a writer’s words coming to life is, of course, nothing new. Since the dawn of fiction it’s been a fantasy of man to make something come to life or to control destiny. Stranger Than Fiction did a great job of displaying the conflict between life and art and which is more important. This is not to that level and it has some rather uneven shifts in tone (let’s be honest, it’s almost to be expected in an indie comedy with a high-concept idea), but it does feature some winning performances from the leads as well as Chris Messina as writer Calvin’s brother with a douchier outlook on life, Elliot Gould as his therapist and a personal favorite, Steve Coogan, as a fellow author. These performances, along with Kazan’s involvement on both sides of the camera, give the film a more personal, homemade feeling than if it were the same idea crapped out of the Hollywood machine as an Eddie Murphy vehicle.
It’s that personality that gives the film its charm and makes it worth seeing.
(Three damns out of five)