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