Post-Modern Pygmalion

film rubyWriter falls for his fictional creation in smart, funny ‘Ruby Sparks’

There’s always a Pygmalion factor involved in the creative process. What author doesn’t fall in love with his or her characters now and then? Imagine Margaret Mitchell grinning fondly at each of Rhett Butler’s caustic wisecracks, or Anne Rice sighing over Lestat’s every erotic bite.

But suppose an author was so profoundly in love with his fictive heroine that she emerged as a flesh and blood person in the midst of his real life? Such is the miracle—and the dilemma—at the heart of Ruby Sparks, the offbeat, savvy and charming new romantic comedy from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine).

The screenplay was written by actress and playwright Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia; her parents Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord are both screenwriters), who also co-stars in the film. The legendary Billy Wilder once advised an obscure young actor named Billy Bob Thornton that if you want a good part in Hollywood, you’d better write it yourself, advice Kazan has taken to heart.

Novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) was a publishing phenomenon at 19, when his first novel became a runaway bestseller, defined a generation and became required reading on every college campus in America. Ten years later, he lives in a modern, split-level home in L.A., publishes occasional short stories, and still appears at literary events before his adoring fans. But he’s also suffering a severe case of writer’s block.

Romantically unattached, and burned from his last (and only) long-term relationship, Calvin starts fantasizing about his ultimate dream girl. When his shrink (a droll Elliott Gould) assigns him to write down one page of anything, however bad, Calvin writes about the girl he names Ruby Sparks. The more he writes about her background and the quirks of her personality, the more inspired he becomes; soon he’s in the thick of a manuscript in which Ruby falls in love with a writer named Calvin.

Imagine his shock when he wakes up one morning to find Ruby herself (Kazan) bustling about his house. Calvin is terrified, and his brother Harry (Chris Messina) naturally assumes he’s mental, until they devise a way to “prove” Ruby is Calvin’s creation—whatever Calvin types into the manuscript (that Ruby speaks French, for instance) immediately effects what Ruby says or does or feels. Harry begs “in the name of men everywhere,” that Calvin not pass up this opportunity to get a woman to do whatever he wants. But Calvin loves Ruby just as she is and locks the manuscript away.

But a funny thing happens once Calvin stops writing her life; Ruby starts to get restless for a future, like anyone else. When she starts to complicate their idyllic relationship with needs and ideas of her own, Calvin finds he can’t resist making a few tweaks to the manuscript.

As movies about writing go, this is no Wonder Boys. It doesn’t offer the same edgy, comprehensive look at the way publishing, academia, and literary lionism conspire to create an industry that eats its young. But Ruby Sparks isn’t really a movie about writing; it’s about finding the balance of power in a relationship, and finding a place for love to root and flourish somewhere in the twilight zone between control and free will. In this respect, it’s both inventive and achingly true, mining both comedy and pathos in scenes where Calvin desperately tries to manipulate Ruby’s actions and feelings.

The film is well-paced, with Dayton and Faris making plenty of room for Kazan’s characters to develop and grow on the audience. The actors are terrific, including Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s hippie mom and her woodworker boyfriend

film ruby(the cheerful chaos of their Big Sur home, with its vibrant colors and patterns and riotous plants, contrasts with the meticulous white cubist interiors of Calvin’s house), and Steve Coogan as a predatory literary poseur. It does seem odd that modern young Calvin hammers away on a vintage Olympia manual typewriter.

It makes total filmic sense; the clattering keys and stack of pages are so much more dynamic and visceral than a laptop could ever be, but there ought to be some mention early on that Calvin is a technophobe. Otherwise, everything rings true in this wistful, playful romance.


★★★ (out of four) 

With Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, and Annette Bening.

Written by Zoe Kazan. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 104 minutes.

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