One way to solve the problem actresses can have of finding a good role is to write it yourself. That’s just what Zoe Kazan has done with the excellent new movie Ruby Sparks.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a writing wunderkind who published his first novel after dropping out of high school. The book has given him a large, loyal following who will still fill up an auditorium to hear him interviewed 10 years after its publication. Calvin, though, is struggling with an epic case of writer’s block, and has produced only a few short pieces in those 10 years. Each day he goes into his study, rolls a piece of paper into his manual typewriter, and stares at the page until something comes along to distract him. (We know this is a fantasy movie because he’s using a manual typewriter, the equivalent of carving stone tablets these days. It’s paid off nicely in the end, though.)
He’s isolated in his life. He lives in a beautiful house with Spartan furnishings, and his best friend is his brother, Harry (Chris Messina). Calvin had bought a dog he named Scotty, since he thought that might help with meeting people. But Scotty is afraid of strangers and has some other issues – he pees like a female dog. Although Harry and his wife, Susie (Toni Trucks), encourage Calvin to get out, he ignores their efforts.
Calvin’s psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) gives him an assignment to write about someone who meets Calvin and Scotty and really likes his dog. When he goes to sleep that night, Calvin dreams of the scene where he meets a girl named Ruby Sparks. When he wakes up, the writer’s block is broken and he writes pages about her. For weeks after that, all he wants to do is write.
Strange things start happening. Scotty carries a woman’s sandal to Calvin while he’s working (in an earlier vision Calvin had of Ruby, she’d lost her shoe). He finds a woman’s razor and shaving cream in his medicine cabinet, and Harry finds a bra stuck in Calvin’s couch. Then one morning, he finds Ruby (Kazan) standing in his kitchen in one of his shirts and briefs, wondering what he’d like for breakfast.
The script mines the standard humor of that situation, with Calvin thinking he’s gone crazy. When he goes out in public with Ruby, though, he finds everyone can see and hear her. The only one who has read the uncompleted manuscript is Harry, and once he’s convinced Ruby is who Calvin says she is, he reacts in a typical, sophomoric way (“Have you thought of writing bigger boobs?”). The beauty of Ruby Sparks is that such stereotypical ideas – which would have been the whole movie in lesser hands – are quickly disposed of. The wonder of the movie is that it goes so much deeper into what creates and sustains a relationship.
Dano carries the majority of the screen time, and he’s an actor who can communicate inner dialogue as clearly as the spoken word. For long stretches at the beginning of the movie it’s just him in his house, and it’s fascinating. As Harry, Chris Messina handles those sophomoric moments without overplaying them, but he also shows, in Harry’s marriage to Susie, true love and devotion as well as vulnerability.
Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas have a beautiful sequence as Calvin’s widowed mother Gertrude and her bohemian lover, Mort. They’ve fashioned a wonderful life for themselves in Big Sur and Ruby both loves and is loved by them. Calvin, however, isolates himself from their world.
The amazing accomplishment, though, is Kazan’s. As an actress, she gives Ruby an effervescence that is completely captivating, but that is just one part of a multi-faceted performance. As a writer, she’s taken a high-concept cliché, a variation on the Pygmalion story from Greek mythology, and breathed new life into it. The story takes turns that bring it to a deeper, darker level, leading to one of the most emotionally raw climaxes that I’ve seen on the silver screen in years. And if writing and staring weren’t enough, she (along with Dano) is one of the film’s co-producers. Kazan could be said to come by her talent naturally – her grandfather was the great Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire), her father is screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune) and her mother is screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women).
The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris were responsible for the quirky and refreshingly unusual Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. They were the perfect choice to capture the delicate reality of Kazan’s vision and put it on the screen.
Ruby Sparks has much to say about the fragility of relationships, and what can make those relationships strong, and it’s a message that will reverberate long after the lights have come up. This is a movie that you will carry with you out of the theater.