Combustible Celluloid
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With: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat, Jane Anne Thomas, John F. Beach, Eleanor Seigler
Written by: Zoe Kazan
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use
Running Time: 104
Date: 07/25/2012

Ruby Sparks (2012)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

She's His Type

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most important things a movie can do is to establish its rules, or set up its universe. A movie can be totally realistic and operate within the laws of everyday life, or it can have absolutely no rules at all, so long as it lets us know. I think the problem with Ruby Sparks is that it's never really sure what the rules are.

Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weir-Fields, a novelist who had an unusually early success and is now struggling to write a second book. He's also struggling with romance and seems unable to find a girlfriend, despite the fact that he gets plenty of attention. On the advice of his shrink (Elliott Gould), he writes about a dream girl. Suddenly, she appears in his apartment. Her name is, of course, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan).

For a while, things go great between Calvin and Ruby, until the relationship begins to take the inevitable turn. But then Calvin discovers that he can "write" Ruby back into his life. In fact, he can make her do anything by typing onto his pages. But, as he soon learns, that's not a real relationship.

According to the movie's rules, everyone can see Ruby, and she behaves like a normal person at all times. She has no supernatural quirks or drawbacks that one might expect, coming, as she has, from a typewriter. It's as if the movie is both too supernatural, and not supernatural enough. It doesn't play with its idea quite enough, though it could have benefited from playing with it less.

The supremely odd thing here is that Ms. Kazan actually wrote the screenplay herself, presumably with an eye on playing Ruby. The question is: is Ruby anything more than just an object? Does she ever come to life? If the movie had been braver, or more playful, she might have, but as it stands, she's a device. We're constantly second-guessing her legitimacy, simply because the movie tries to make her legit.

The directors are Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and it's their follow-up to their hit Little Miss Sunshine (2006). They have cast Paul Dano in the lead, and six years older, Dano has more or less turned inward as an actor, becoming something like a Crispin Glover type. He's odd-looking and out of step. It's possible to believe that he's a successful author -- even if the movie doesn't provide any profound prose to back it up -- but it's hard to peg him as a romantic.

For some reason, a host of interesting actors signed on for small parts, such as Annette Bening as Calvin's mom, and Antonio Banderas as his stepdad. They seem to have some kind of story waiting in the wings that never gets told. Chris Messina plays Calvin's too-handsome brother (are they really related?) and Steve Coogan plays a rival.

While watching Ruby Sparks, I couldn't help thinking of Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and the very satisfying, entertaining way that movie managed to cross the concept of "life" created by an author. This movie doesn't seem to know where life and art cross. If it had admitted and enjoyed that lack of knowledge, we might have had a terrific movie.
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