Pen pal – Ruby Sparks review

Ruby Sparks – Starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, and Antonio Banderas. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Rated M. By Richard Haridy.

Ruby Sparks plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 18, 2012. It arrives in Australian cinemas September 20, 2012.

Regularly embodied by Zooey Deschanel, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG) is the latest incarnation of the classic Pygmalion trope that films have been playing off for years: a wide-eyed, unpredictable, charmingly crazy girl gusts into a man’s life like a transformative whirlwind. Ruby Sparks cleverly deconstructs that conceit and, whilst not entirely perfect, is entertaining, funny, and much more interesting than your average American comedy.

Calvin Fields (Paul Dano) is a best-selling but reclusive author suffering writer’s block and struggling to follow up on his debut masterpiece written almost a decade ago. After an inspirational dream, Calvin begins madly writing; developing a character named Ruby Sparks who he begins to literally fall in love with. In a moment of unexplained magical realism he awakes one day to find a woman (Zoe Kazan) in his apartment who claims her name is Ruby and that they are in a relationship.

Things become immensely fascinating when Calvin discovers that whatever he writes in his manuscript is immediately manifested in reality by Ruby. He can make her unknowingly speak French or even come back to him when she has inclinations of breaking up. It’s a great concept and writer Kazan (grand-daughter of the legendary Elia Kazan, no less) bravely takes us to some unexpectedly dark places. Adding a greater layer of interest is watching Kazan herself take the role of Ruby, Calvin’s fictional creation. In a story that could very easily have become a misogynistic male-fantasy, Kazan successfully turns her narrative more into an examination of where power needs to lie in a relationship in order for it to be functional.

Despite a lovely supporting cast including Steve Coogan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas and Elliot Gould, the movie suffers when it detours into family visits or industry parties. These tangents are always amusing (Banderas in particular is great fun) but never really add much to the story. Ruby Sparks is at its strongest when it concentrates on the evolving insular relationship between Dano and Kazan.

Shot wonderfully by Matthew Libateque and directed competently by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (their first in six years after a successful debut with Little Miss Sunshine), Ruby Sparks is an honest, entertaining, and insightful picture that, despite a very ‘filmy’ happy ending, offers up an amusingly frank deconstruction of the ‘dream girl’ idea that pervades much modern fiction.


Ruby Sparks plays the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 18, 2012. It arrives in Australian cinemas September 20, 2012.

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