I've got an old friend who once had a partner radically at odds with the types of women he was used to going out with. A feisty, intelligent man himself, he was accustomed to similar traits in his girl friends but this one time experimented with a lover whose insecurities ensured she was subservient and unchallenging, acceding to his every whim. Though at first the situation seemed like the ultimate male fantasy he soon ended the relationship, bored and unsatisfied. There was no erotic tension or drama. He wanted a love mate, not a slave.
The plot of Ruby Sparks has similarity with this scenario. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a frustrated celebrity author struggling to come up with a novel to match the acclaim of his debut work. He's also yet to recover from the end of his first serious relationship, enjoying no friendships outside that of his brother and his psychoanalyst. When Calvin dreams one night of a twenty-something red head it suddenly inspires him to recreate the character on the page, christening her Ruby. Liberated from a decade's worth of writer's block, he lives and breaths Ruby, pouring all his creative energies into the fiction. Then one morning Calvin awakes to discover that she has magically manifested in his house, the flesh and blood equivalent of his fantasy woman.
Like many a Hollywood high concept before it Ruby Sparks is content to leave its central conceit as a metaphor, never attempting to explain the whys or hows of its titular heroine's existence. A cross between the old 1980s comedy Weird Science and the more recent post modern drama Stranger Than Fiction, it is less a conventional "rom com" than an examination of contemporary gender politics. Dano would be few young ladies' idea of a leading man, his acting mannerisms and delivery style recalling more Anthony Perkins than Cary Grant. Calvin's egocentric, misogynistic tendencies are reminiscent of a mad scientist in a horror movie, with Ruby as much his Frankenstein's monster as soul mate.
Behind the scenes life somewhat imitated art. Ruby is played by Zoe Kazan - granddaughter of the legendary director Elia Kazan - and she also wrote the film as a vehicle for herself and partner Dano. No classical beauty, though Kazan has an undeniable screen presence it is unlikely she would have been cast in the role if she had not authored it herself. However, there is genuine chemistry between the pair and the scenes of romantic frolic hit all the necessary notes.
A strong supporting cast also helps. As Calvin's analyst veteran Elliot Gould manages to transcend the Woody Allen cliches inherent in the role. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas clearly enjoy themselves as the writer's hippy mother and step-father respectively. Bening is always a more pleasant screen personality when playing air headed parts, losing all the dowdy and down cast expressions that have plagued her of late and Banderas has seldom been as relaxed on screen, at least in the English language.
While Ruby Sparks will engage and entertain those open to its premise it perhaps falls short of its ambition. For all it exposes Calvin's dark, controlling side and puts him through something of a comeuppance he still gets off the hook rather lightly. Ruby herself could have developed further as a character, becoming even more self aware and calling her creator to greater account. Ironically, despite the fact that the actress who plays the fantasy female actually wrote the film, Ruby Sparks is first and foremost a study of the male psyche. Ruby never really finds a voice.
- © Fairfax NZ News