It’s somewhat ironic that Ruby Sparks‘ central character is a novelist spending an excessive period trying to write his second masterwork, given that the films’ directing duo have been off our screens for six years after their Oscar winning, gooey comedy Little Miss Sunshine. The married indie darlings Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are back with a film that fringes on the saccharine, yet the Woody Allen premise takes Ruby Sparks into unexpectedly sinister territory.
The appropriately bemused looking Paul Dano stars as the prodigious writer Calvin Weir-Felds who has coasted on the success of his debut novel from ten year’s previous. Now it’s time to write the bestselling follow-up. But it won’t come. Tormented by a harsh break-up and the pressure from his demanding agent, the perpetual loner only escapes his depression in the land of nod, dreaming up a red-haired vixen named Ruby Sparks (played by the movie’s writer Zoe Kazan). Wanting to spend more time with his (wait for it) “manic pixie dream girl”, Calvin compulsively labours over his typewriter. Creating a character so detailed and real that he wakes up the next day to find Ruby has lifted off the page and into the real world; wearing his shirt and cooking him breakfast.
With Ruby and Calvin’s blossoming relationship at the crux of the movie, the impressive supporting cast aren’t given much time to shine. Steve Coogan is perfectly cast as a sleazy author in the shadows, yet isn’t given enough drugs to dazzle. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas turn up as the film’s most eccentric and likeable characters, Calvin’s bohemian mother and carpenter step-dad. The pair have a natural chemistry and the sense of exuberance one hopes for in a movie of this pedigree, which is unfortunately, and somewhat worryingly, nonexistent between real-life couple Dano and Kazan.
Ruby Sparks’ main problems don’t arise from the fantastical plot, nor the acting credentials of its cast, but the film’s drastic shifts in tone. Starting as a depressive look at the pitfalls of stardom with Dano’s dowdy Calvin, once Ruby manifests it turns into a (500) Days of Summer, cardigan wearing twee-fest, followed by Meet The Parents broad comedy, destructive relationship drama, Frankenstein vs. Monster nightmare and closing with a wimpy return back to the cardigans (now with additional leather elbow patches). Although none of these moods are bad in their own right, their mashed-up result is hardly the fuzzy ball of fun one expects from the Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers, nor does it sufficiently explore the issues of idealism and relationship control which it disingenuously toys with. A nice try, but no jewel to be found here.