Rise and fall of romance in ‘Ruby’
Made for each other? Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in “Ruby Sparks.”
Updated: August 13, 2012 3:46PM
★ ★ ★
A beguiling but by no means reassuring romance with classical underpinnings, this second feature by the directors of “Little Miss Sunshine” muses on the ephemeral nature of romantic relationships — particularly their tendency to go painfully awry.
Even when they literally have been made to order.
Inspired by the myth of Pygmalion (the legend of a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues, which also inspired George Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name and the musical “My Fair Lady”), “Ruby Sparks” is the story of a lonely, isolated and rather insufferable young novelist named Calvin (Paul Dano), whose imagination concocts a dream girl who comes to life.
After writing a best-seller at the age of 19 that has made him rich and famous while hobbling him creatively with a reputation for genius, Calvin has written nothing but a handful of short stories for 10 years.
Friendless except for a scruffy little dog he acquired on the advice of his psychiatrist (a nice cameo role for ’60s/’70s star Elliott Gould), Calvin spends his days staring at a blank sheet of paper in his manual typewriter while his agent and publisher grow increasingly impatient and a troubling new tone begins to emerge from the admirers he condescendingly tolerates at personal appearances. “Is it weird for you that you used to be so successful?” one asks.
So his relief is exultant and infectious when inspiration strikes. After dreaming of a beautiful young girl named Ruby with red hair and blue eyes (Dano’s real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay), who teases him for having passive-aggressively named his dog after F. Scott Fitzgerald, Calvin types for days in a creative frenzy, writing an elaborate character profile that begins to take on a strange new dimension.
“It’s like I’m writing so I can spend time with her,” he tells his shrink. And that wish comes true in a big way when Ruby’s shoes and underwear and personal hygiene products begin to materialize in his house. That’s just before she appears in the flesh one morning, wearing nothing but one of his shirts and offering to make him eggs for breakfast.
This is all delightful (especially as seen through the eyes of Calvin’s worried brother Harry, played by Chris Messina), because Kazan’s initial take on the situation (as writer and actor) is to play it for comedy. Calvin and Harry are initially convinced that he has lost his mind.
But after discovering that Ruby really does exist, and that Calvin can alter her with a few words on his typewriter (their first test has Ruby switching from English to fluent French without noticing any change), they are content to accept her as a gift from the gods.
However, Harry has different ideas about the potential benefits of having a tweakable girlfriend who can be made to think, feel and act any way at all.
“For men everywhere,” he implores, “tell me you’re not going to let this go to waste.”
But noble Calvin has a higher ideal of love — at first. “I will never write about her again,” he says.
And so it goes, during the first rush of infatuation, when they fulfill each other’s every need and appear to be ideally matched. Until, gradually — perhaps inevitably? — that first glow begins to fade and Ruby begins to find Calvin controlling and their isolated life stifling.
So, what does Calvin do when things stop going his way in the relationship? He goes back to the typewriter, of course.
That’s the point where Kazan’s ambitious script takes a big risk and switches gears from frothy comedy to grim contemplation of the darker side of the interpersonal dynamics in romantic relationships as both parties struggle for power.
She and Dano and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make it work, for the most part (despite occasional logical gaps and a jarring shift in tone), as Calvin’s adjustments make Ruby veer in various disastrous directions.
She’s unbearably clingy one moment, unbearably happy the next and Calvin is increasingly dissatisfied until his frustration culminates in a thoroughly unpleasant scene in which he demonstrates his total dominance. At his worst, Calvin is not above making Ruby crawl on all fours and bark like a dog.
Fortunately, there’s more to “Ruby Sparks” than that — even more than its potentially dead-end juxtaposition of infatuation and disillusionment, honeymoon and hell on Earth. It’s something along the lines of if-you-love-something-let-it-go.
To see whether or not it comes back.
And if it does, what do you do with it then?