Wednesday, July 23, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

‘Ruby Sparks’: Fantasy with a whimsical glow

Initially, Harry (Chris Messina, right) assumes that Calvin’s (Paul Dano) new girlfriend is nothing more than a figment of his unbalanced imagination. But when Harry finally agrees to meet Ruby (Zoe Kazan) — and realizes that she’s a genuine, flesh-and-blood woman — he’s both captivated and genuinely amazed ... because he knows that she first existed only as a character in Calvin’s new novel. Courtesy photo

By
From page A11 | August 17, 2012 |

“Ruby Sparks”

Four stars

Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliot Gould, Alia Shawkat

Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief drug use

Fresh, provocative concepts are one of cinema’s great treasures: unexpected delights — often in quiet, unassuming packages — that catch our fancy because they deserve to.

They’re usually script-driven, sometimes a debut screenplay by a young actor flying beneath the radar … but not for long. Think of Sylvester Stallone, stubbornly shepherding 1976’s “Rocky” to the big screen as a starring vehicle for himself. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.” Sofia Coppola, and 2003’s “Lost in Translation” (not her first script, but certainly the Academy Award-winning effort that made her career). Michael Arndt, and 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The latter also marked the directorial debut of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a filmmaking team who cut their teeth on music videos and the MTV series “The Cutting Edge” before turning their deliciously quirky sensibilities to full-length features. They’re obviously selective, having waited six years before embarking on their sophomore effort.

And while “Ruby Sparks” certainly benefits from their capable guidance, this wonderfully idiosyncratic charmer will be immortalized as the film that transformed Zoe Kazan from a little-known young actress — you might remember her from supporting roles in 2008’s “Revolutionary Road” and 2009’s “It’s Complicated” — to a multi-hyphenate: star, writer and producer.

“Ruby Sparks” is Kazan’s tart, unapologetically preposterous update of the ancient Greek “Pygmalion” myth, which concerned a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he created, after it came to life. George Bernard Shaw turned this concept into a 1912 play that eventually begat the acclaimed 1956 Broadway musical “My Fair Lady,” which has remained famous — as a film and stage production — ever since.

In Kazan’s hands, the sculptor becomes novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a former literary wunderkind who sold his acclaimed first novel while still a teenager. But like other first-time author celebrities before him — Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee come to mind — the subsequent fame has proved stifling and artistically crippling. Now, a full decade later, Calvin still rides on the fame of his debut book, but he hasn’t been able to write anything new.

His brother, Harry (Chris Messina), figures that everything would get better if Calvin could move beyond the still-festering break-up of a longtime relationship, by dating again. Oddly, though, Calvin’s dreams have been pleasantly invaded by a personable young woman who first appears, missing one shoe, as a back-lit apparition on a beach. She continues to pop up when he sleeps, her presence becoming more tangible. More in self-defense than anything else, Calvin starts to write about this young woman, both recording his dreams and layering her with back-story and character traits.

Including a name: Ruby Sparks.

Novelists often discuss this very phenomenon: the enchanting allure of creating characters who become so real that they seem to leap off the page. In Calvin’s case, this is precisely what happens: He descends the stairs of his luxurious Hollywood Hills home one otherwise ordinary morning, to find Ruby (Kazan) asking if he’d like breakfast.

Thus far, Dano has held our attention as a bruised, socially inept and mildly idiosyncratic recluse: a guy with no friends, who’s more comfortable with his books than with the folks next door. What happens in the next 10 minutes is the make or break point for the rest of this film, as Calvin struggles with the ludicrous insanity of what seems to have happened.

Kazan (the writer) doesn’t shy from the absurdity of it all; she simply plunges forward and demands that we accept the impossible, just as Calvin insists that Harry do the same. Dano is note-perfect during this brief transitional stage — his efforts to evade Ruby in his own home are hilarious — and, rather quickly, we simply go with it. Why not?

And how could Calvin resist? Ruby is the epitome of his frustrated, yearning imagination; she can’t help but be the living, breathing personification of his ideal soul-mate. And, in truth, Kazan (the actress) imbues Ruby with a giddy, irresistible effervescence: She’s charismatic, appealingly flawed — bad taste in men, up to this point — and attuned to Calvin’s every mood.

Calvin adores her; she, in turn, mirrors that love. Everything is perfect.

For a time.

Novelists also discuss another phenomenon: the character who refuses to move in intended directions according to a pre-planned plot, who exerts a will of her own and behaves the way she desires, thank you very much. And so it is with Ruby, who eventually begins to transcend the details Calvin thought to grant her.

What happens next … ah, but that would be telling.

Dano and Kazan share marvelous chemistry: no surprise, since they’ve been an off-camera couple for five years. And while real-life couples sometimes don’t display the all-essential, meet-cute spontaneity of fictional on-screen lovers, Dano and Kazan — no doubt with help from directors Dayton and Faris — obviously worked their way around that issue. They share the necessary magic and, ah, radiant sparks; their antics — particularly early on, during montages set to French pop anthems such as “Ça plane pour moi” — are deliriously, impishly romantic.

Messina successfully navigates a very difficult and delicate role as Harry, the one person taken into Calvin’s confidence, who knows about Ruby’s actual origins. Harry becomes our surrogate: the cynical, dubious guy who initially believes that his brother needs to be committed, but then is forced to acknowledge the evidence of his own senses. Messina also delivers his barbed one-liners with panache, as Harry struggles to re-define his entire understanding of God’s universe.

Progressing through the buoyant introduction and increasingly unsettling second act, we simply can’t imagine where Kazan’s script will take us … although we also can’t shake the disturbing feeling that events will spiral out of control, and in the worst possible way. Regardless of such concerns, though, we’re truly, madly and deeply hooked, probably from the moment we meet Calvin, and certainly from the point Ruby enters his life.

Kazan’s screenplay is witty, clever, occasionally snarky and unerringly perceptive in its analysis of relationships, and how they’re sustained … or not. On top of which, she uncorks a final scene — two deft lines of dialogue — that is every bit as memorably exquisite as Shirley MacLaine’s insistence that Jack Lemmon “Shut up and deal,” as “The Apartment” concludes. No small feat, that.

Like “Little Miss Sunshine,” though, “Ruby Sparks” — however delightful — is a “small” film that may not bear the weight of the media tsunami destined to overwhelm it. Do yourself a favor: See it now, quickly, before the hype raises expectations too high.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | No comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

.

News

 
Second Mellon grant supports Mondavi events

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Are arachnids awesome or awful? Visit Bohart Museum to find out

By Kathy Keatley Garvey | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Police arrest suspect in robbery spree

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

 
Madhavi Sunder joins Davis school board race

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A2

 
Crews make gains on massive Washington wildfire

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

New safety rules proposed to curb oil train fires

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

 
Kaiser awards grants to Yolo nonprofits

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

 
NAMI program offers mental illness information, support

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Backpacks for Kids launches annual donation drive

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Architecture in Davis, on ‘Davisville’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Speaker will spin some fishing tales at Davis meeting

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3 | Gallery

Kids can paint their own Breyer horses at Davis store

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Grandparents support group meets weekly

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Exchange program seeks host families

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

 
Wine-tastings will benefit YCCC

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Pedro party will benefit Yolo Hospice

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Car lovers will speak Sunday at gallery

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Racial diversity crucial to drug trials, treatments

By San Francisco Chronicle | From Page: A4

 
Enterprise is focus of Davis Roots talk

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

Quaff a beer and watch the bats

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

 
.

Forum

They’re pickier than she is

By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

 
U.S. is complicit in attack

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 2 Comments

Extinguish extremism for peace

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 2 Comments

 
With profound gratitude

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

 
Someday, there will be peace

By Rich Rifkin | From Page: A6

Tom Meyer cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A6

 
.

Sports

Former Davis man at crossroads: biking or artwork?

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Aggie golfer headed to men’s U.S. Amateur Championship

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Giants outlast Phillies

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
River Cats nip dogs

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

A’s fall in extra innings

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Blue Jays hitting upends Red Sox

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

Pyrenees please Nibali, Rogers in Tour Stage 16

By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

 
Albergotti to discuss Armstrong’s doping scandal

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B8

.

Features

Field to Fork: Skyelark Ranch, not a lark at all

By Dan Kennedy | From Page: A8 | Gallery

 
Name droppers: ASUCD hands out awards

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A8 | Gallery

.

Arts

Tomato Festival makes call for young artists

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

 
Additional casting notice for ‘Hello Dolly’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

Hear Los Tres de Winters on Thursday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

 
Picott to play at The Palms Playhouse

By Kate Laddish | From Page: A7

Fairy-tale romance in Barnyard Theatre’s ‘Pinky’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

 
Soar to Neverland with DMTC’s ‘Peter Pan’

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7 | Gallery

Village Homes to host Rita Hosking Trio

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7 | Gallery

 
.

Business

.

Obituaries

.

Comics

Comics: Wednesday, July 23, 2014

By Creator | From Page: B6