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Ruby Sparks but Doesn't Catch Fire

<i>Ruby Sparks</i> but Doesn't Catch Fire

DVD Release Date: October 30, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: July 25, 2012
Rating: R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 106 min.
Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Aasif Mandvi, Elliott Gould, Deborah Ann Woll

Movies about writers are notoriously difficult to pull off. Unless you have the insight and playfulness of Charlie Kaufman or the Coen Brothers, who made two of the more successful films about the writing life (Adaptation and Barton Fink, respectively), finding a way to visualize the life of the mind can result in the cinematic equivalent of writer’s block: The narrative has a hard time getting started.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have spent the last few years with a Barton Fink-like problem: trying to follow up a major success (in their case, Little Miss Sunshine back in 2006) with a similarly appealing tale. They bet on Ruby Sparks, written by Zoe Kazan (Revolutionary Road), who plays the title character in the film.

Sunshine breakout star Paul Dano takes the lead in Ruby Sparks as Calvin. After early success as a writer, it’s been years since he made a splash in the publishing world. Since then his life has crumbled. His girlfriend, Lila (Deborah Ann Woll, Seven Days in Utopia), left him years ago, and he now spends more time with his dog than he does with most human beings. The exception is his brother, Harry (Chris Messina, Julie & Julia), who steers most of their conversations toward Calvin’s sex life—or lack thereof.

The closest Calvin gets to female companionship is a woman he encounters in his dreams. (Upon finding out Calvin’s dreams aren’t sexual in nature, Harry is disappointed). Calvin’s dreams are inspirational; they succeed in getting Calvin to write again.

When Calvin’s dream woman, whom he names Ruby Sparks, shows up in Calvin’s apartment and becomes part of his waking hours, he has to find a way to explain her sudden existence to Harry. More challenging, Calvin learns he can change Ruby’s behavior and attitude simply by sitting at his typewriter and creating her personality on the page. Does he want Ruby to be clingy? He just types it on the page. Doe he want her to speak French? Same deal.

If we could have companions who do what we want, the way we want, would we be happy? That’s the central question Ruby Sparks poses, and it’s an interesting one to a point. But the answer is apparent rather quickly—no, we’d rather have companions who sometimes annoy us, whose affection has to be earned rather than dictated, as Harry tries to explain to Calvin in one of the film’s better moments. Once that issue is resolved, where can the filmmakers take it? The premise is difficult to sustain over the length of a feature film.

The film’s shortcomings are never well hidden, although Dayton and Faris add enough humorous supporting performances to distract us for a time. If Calvin’s mom, played by Annette Bening (American Beauty), and her partner (Antonio Banderas, Puss in Boots) aren’t on the level of Alan Arkin’s Oscar-winning performance in Sunshine, they do bring a measure of liveliness to a film that too often tries to be adorable. Better had Kazan’s script gone further with some of the film’s darker overtones, which the film addresses all too briefly.

Ruby Sparks also suffers somewhat from a lack of innocence. The story’s fairy-tale quality is undermined by characters who spout variations of the f-word every time something surprises them, and by matter-of-fact discussions of sexual intimacies. The failure of this story about writing to come up with more stimulating, original dialogue is hard to overlook.

“Everything’s been so up and down lately,” an exasperated Ruby says late in the film. “It’s like my internal moral compass is gone.” That’s a nice summary statement of the film as a whole—up and down, with a moral to its story that, while thoughtful, feels more appropriate to a TV-length program rather than a feature film. Ruby Sparks shows some promise for writer and actress Kazan, but it could have used a few more drafts and a bit of beefing up in the story-development stage.

For all its sparks, Ruby never quite catches fire.


  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; an abundance of foul language, including multiple uses of the “f”-word, discussions about sex and sex acts; “douchiness”; “s-it”; “dam-it”; “slut”; “t-ts”
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Drinking; a character says he’s been drinking but hasn’t had any “coke”; Calvin’s mom says the plants she’s growing have “medicinal purposes”; drugs are smoked
  • Sex/Nudity: Kissing; in voiceover, Calvin explains that Ruby was kicked out of school for sleeping with a teacher; a bra and panties appear in Calvin’s drawer; Ruby flings her panties at Calvin; Ruby says she missed Calvin in bed the previous evening; Calvin tells his brother that Ruby enjoys a certain sex act; Calvin is propositioned by a woman who wants to meet with him and have sex; Calvin’s brother says their mom used to paint “porn” featuring people in various sexual positions; a man caresses a woman’s backside; Ruby gets out of the shower (nothing seen) and puts a towel around her, then puts on her night clothes; Calvin and Ruby hold each other in bed; Ruby strips to her underwear
  • Violence/Crime: Reckless driving
  • Religion/Morals: Calvin says his girlfriend left him after his father died; later, when they see each other, she accuses Calvin of having been self-absorbed; Calvin’s mom says part of her home is constructed of blessed materials from the Amish and bricks from a Catholic school; Ruby says she’s lost her internal moral compass; Ruby wonders if she knew Calvin “in another life”

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Publication date: July 25, 2012