CINEMA: News Weekly
"Divine madness" or sacred creativity?
, October 13, 2012
Ruby Sparks (rated M) is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Sparkling with pixie magic sprinkled over the trendy-trite lifestyles of indie (i.e., independent) hipsters, Ruby Sparks is a delicate and darkly amusing filmic fable about love and loneliness, creativity and control, and the artifice that assails relationships.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano, famous for his preacher role in There Will Be Blood) is an awkward, angst-ridden writer. He published his first novel at the age of 19 and has been struggling ever since. His is a lonely existence, locked up in his own inadequacies and youthful inexperience, overwhelmed by his early success and his social incompetence. And now he is struggling with writer’s block.
His therapist, Dr Rosenthal (Elliot Gould), suggests that he write a page about someone meeting his dog, Scotty, and liking him. Spurred by this, and dreams of an elfin girl who loves him, Calvin becomes inspired and creates the character of Ruby Sparks. She is a figment of his imagination, a sort of “manic pixie dream girl” who embodies many of his needs.
Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks
All is well enough, with Calvin tapping away at his old typewriter, until he wakes up one morning to find Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script) in the flesh, in his house, garbed in one of his shirts and making breakfast. After he finally accepts that she is real, and he is not having a psychiatric breakdown, then the drama begins, especially as Calvin comes to realise that his writing of Ruby means that he can define her behaviour and persona.
The performances are elegant and sharp, in a manner reminiscent of the old screwball comedies. Chris Messina plays Calvin’s typically macho brother, Harry; and Annette Bening plays their widowed mother who has taken up with a vibrant artisan, cheekily portrayed by Antonio Banderas. Steve Coogan has a memorable role as a sleazy writer and Calvin’s mentor.
The cinematography is crisp and indie and clear. The soundtrack alternates between the grand drama of searing orchestral music, and the free-spirited abandon of trendy tunes in a ’sixties style. This is another way in which the movie resembles the screwball comedies of times gone by, where the popular and the sophisticated were seamlessly blended together in a whirling whole, like a Fred and Ginger dance sequence.
The film has been loved and loathed by the critics. The loathing largely comes from those attacking the work as a vanity piece for Ms Kazan, who is the real life love of Paul Dano, and granddaughter of the legendary, (in)famous, Elia Kazan. They see it as an ego trip for her, and highlight its inconsistencies and improbabilities for this reason. Their pettiness makes for entertaining, if irksome, reading.
While this film may seem light and lovely and romantic, it’s actually quite coldly and classically crafted. The characters are not quite real people, but types, fleshed out with idiosyncrasies and by superb performances, and they exist to propose an argument that rolls with the relentless logic of a Jacobean drama.
That it is referred to as a romantic comedy is to give it a surprisingly technical classification. It deals with the foibles of relationships, provokes laughter and ultimately has a somewhat happy ending. The popular category of “rom-com”, however, does not provide an accurate description of this film.
The sharpness of the satire is directed as much at the character of Ruby, and the idea of the “manic pixie dream girl”, as it is at Calvin. She is an unpredictable flake, even before being re-written and re-formed. She is culturally unaware, and can be socially maladroit and emotionally insensitive.
These are lesser evils when compared with Calvin’s neurotic control-freakery and capricious, slightly demented and cruel immaturity; but they both reflect the somewhat ambiguous nature of modern, committed but unmarried, relationships where there can be no security, except the somewhat nebulous security of the “heart”. It may not even be the case that the film-makers were aware of their subconscious social critique, but it is apparent.
Finally, Ruby Sparks is about the sacredness of creativity, of the divine inspiration that is breathed through the receptive artist, from the Divinity, giving them a chance to participate in God’s own creative act. Such things unhinge, as much as they enliven. This “divine madness”, as Plato called it, is no guarantee of integrity, or even insight, and can fuel the megalomaniac, as this story shows.
Taking a lead from the Latin American tradition of magic realism, written by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and filmed by such as Guillermo del Toro, Ruby Sparks follows in using astonishing, “unreal” occurrences to illuminate finer points of commentary.
Unlike their tendency towards socio-political critique, Ruby Sparks uses the intimate, and the personal, to spell out an intricate and ultimately thought-provoking truth — “Isn’t falling in love a type of magic?”