Should Ruby Sparks speak out to you as a film you might like to see, a romantic dramedy starring Zoe Kazan (It’s Complicated (2009)) and Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Knight and Day 2010), There Will Be Blood (2007)), here’s a little of what you may be getting into. Kazan and Dano are currently a couple, in a real relationship, just as you see the relationship here; and they are Executive Producers of Ruby Sparks. Kazan wrote the screenplay. She’s a graduate of Yale University and she is the granddaughter of American filmmaker Elia Kazan (she looks just like him). Grandpa is a two-time Best Director Oscar winner and his films, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On The Waterfront (1954), Gentleman’s Agreement and A Face in the Crowd (1957) did so much for acting—with acting instructor Lee Strasberg’s (The Actors Studio) use of method acting—that Kazan’s unpopularity as a Hollywood insider who named names during the House Committee on Un-American Activities “witch hunt” of 1956 is all but nearly forgotten. Actors such as Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, James Dean, Montgomery Cliff, Kim Hunter, Dean Stockwell and Robert De Niro all graduated from the Kazan school of acting. To which Ruby Sparks owes much of its ambition.
The Story: Writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) who experienced unexpected fame as a teenage novelist, his name and J.D. Salinger often mentioned in the same sentence, is having a hard time writing his second book. Until his therapist, played by method actor Elliott Gould, suggests he write about the girl who appears in Calvin’s dreams. Soon he realizes the girl that inspires his writing, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), who has him feverishly writing again, is one that literally walks off the page.
The Goods: Elia Kazan worked with such writing talents as Budd Shulberg, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets and Harold Pinter. At the very least Zoe Kazan also has that to emulate and strive toward in terms of achieving something slightly more enriching and rewarding for the movie going experience that just spectacle. It’s good to see someone trying for a change rather than just succumbing to formula or reboots and remakes to make a buck. Besides, what does one have to work with when they have a script and no money? Actors. The gimmick here of a girl come to life from the mind of a writer is nothing new but the theme of control and power in relationships is explored in much the same way Kazan’s grandfather would have tackled it.
The Flaws: It’s almost too much to want to suspend disbelief rather than actually do it. There’s no expensive production design and craft going on here, like say you might see in a Spielberg film. We’re not seeing a Steve Martin film either. All comparison’s to Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction (2006) may ring true but where that film stars a Saturday Night Live alum as its central character, Ruby Sparks has virtually unknowns. This year’s Safety Not Guaranteed is another romantic film that asks you to believe something that’s fantasy but I think it does it one better in its quirkiness. That and it delays the big pay-off as long as possible without crossing into doldrums. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris who had much success with the actor-heavy Oscar winning comedy Little Miss Sunshine aim for that high of a mark, a literary play along the lines of grandpa’s, in this their sophomore effort. I imagine they feel akin to Calvin Weir-Fields in that respect. Though I will say as is generally the case in sophomore efforts it tries to bite off more than it can chew coming off as Alexander Payne lite with its at times smart dialogue and actor-stretching scenes. It doesn’t quite make it to the level of an About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004) or The Descendants (2011) but it wants to. That’s not a bad thing but when you start to see it trying too hard you immediately slip from suspended place in the story’s make-believe and suddenly see two actors working to get a scene right.
The Call: Spend the ten. This is the kind of small film The Weinsteins are normally trying to sell “for your consideration” to The Academy. From launch at Cannes to landing at the Oscars. Only it doesn’t have the financial muscle to market and advertise itself all year long. Ruby Sparks does however have a gimmick at the heart of the relationship between the two main performers, and it has French dialogue in a few places, which French seems to be the new Weinstein thing these days (see last year’s The Artist, and this year’s The Intouchables). Don’t be surprised if you see Kazan at the 2013 Golden Globes or Oscars, not because of the French of course. But because we need more actor-writers like this.
Rated R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use. Running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.
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