Zoe Kazan is just one of the few actors in recent years who have decided to write a screenplay with a central character made for themselves. In most cases these films are usually from actors struggling to find a breakout performance, so they decide to write their own. Kazan however, is a playwright slowly making a transition to the big screen. With Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan not only illustrates her ability as an actor, but also as a smart screenwriter.
It’s something that seems to run in the family. Zoe Kazan’s grandfather, Elia Kazan, directed On The Waterfront. Her mother, Robin Swicord, wrote the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And her father, Nicholas Kazan, wrote the screenplay for Reversal of Fortune. While these family members have all been blessed with career defining movies, you get the feeling that Zoe’s best is still ahead of her. Ruby Sparks is one of the smarter films of the year, but you get the feeling that Kazan is going to go from strength to strength after this.
Calvin (Paul Dano) is writer living of the success of his first novel, which he wrote when he was nineteen. Since then, he has struggled to find anything to top it. His therapist (Elliott Gould) tells Calvin to write about the girl that has been appearing in the novelist’s recent dreams. After a while, Calvin finds that he is falling in love with his fantasy woman, who he has named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Things however take a rather strange turn, when Calvin finds Ruby is now a living person, who thinks she’s his girlfriend, and is walking around his apartment wearing just his shirt.
Paul Dano (who is Zoe Kazan’s real life boyfriend) is surprisingly well cast as the struggling writer Calvin. Kazan could have easily fallen into the trap of making Calvin the stereotypical loner, but that’s far from the case. At one point we briefly meet one of Calvin’s ex-girlfriends Lila (Deborah Ann Woll). We find out she dumped him because he tried to put her up on a pedestal. Calvin is hauntingly similar to many young cerebral men – he wants to find the perfect woman, and feels he can change women into his idealised vision.
Even when it comes to the cast though, Zoe Kazan really does own the film. It certainly is a breakout performance, literally playing the girl of Calvin’s dreams. And just like with Calvin, Ruby is a character we recognise. She’s an amazing cook, with a love for zombie movies and video games. She is every brainy and shy guy’s perfect woman. It’s a shame then that the other characters aren’t so well planned out. Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the literary agent Langdon Tharp feels rather out of place, with Coogan trying to provide his own brand of dry wit to a film that’s more about quirky humour.
For the most part Kazan does stick to the premise of her idea. The most enjoyable scene in the film is when Calvin and his brother Harry (Chris Messina) put Calvin’s ability to control Ruby to the test, and make her speak fluent French while looking puzzled as to why they can’t understand her. It’s a great light hearted moment, but when the film starts to head in a much darker direction, Kazan pulls her punches a little. Instead of making a larger issue out of Calvin’s ability to control her, the darker side to the premise is crammed into one scene.
That is an opportunity missed, but it’s true testament to Kazan’s writing ability that she is able to keep the film on a solid track, and stick to the central theme. Ruby Sparks is all about how people attempt to change the person they are in a relationship with into their ideal partner, and the dangers of attempting to do that.
In the end it does all come together with perhaps an ending that’s a little too neat and tidy, but it sticks to its guns and doesn’t give up on its premise during the film’s shakier moments. It’s certainly an ambitious film for someone making their screenwriting debut, and it’s handled with an artful relish. It may drift into the more traditional idea of a rom-com at times, but this is still one of the funniest and smartest indy films of recent years.
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