Ruby Sparks should have been a home-run film considering it’s directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame. Unfortunately, the whimsy of that previous film isn’t necessarily found in their follow-up. The first half of Ruby Sparks is a fun romantic comedy focused on following a writer’s hunt for inspiration and the literal muse that develops. The second half becomes a turgid and dark film that seems to have a bizarre message about control that isn’t given proper consequences. The acting is good, but for a film that starts out as a grown-up romantic comedy, it quickly devolves into stereotypical, cutesy fare.
Author Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) can’t write a follow-up to his critically acclaimed novel. While working on an assignment, Calvin starts crafting the girl of his dreams named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Unknowingly, his inspiration becomes real when Ruby shows up in his house. Ruby thinks she's real, and that her and Calvin are in a relationship. Calvin soon learns that whatever he types about Ruby comes true, causing him to wonder how far he'll go to change the woman of his dreams.
Ruby Sparks seems to suffer from the problems of many movies trying to be the “anti” rom-com in that the first half is significantly better than the second. The first half of Ruby Sparks is fun and magical. The plot never gives out anything more than what it states: Calvin creates the ultimate manic pixie dream girl (and no matter what screenwriter/actress Kazan says, she is one), and wants to know how far he can change her to suit his ideals. You see Calvin freak out over Ruby’s appearance, the two developing a relationship, and the eventual inertia of coupledom. It’s a grown-up film presenting things as they are with a dose of humor and magic. Even the second half follows the idea of idealization with Calvin meeting his ex-girlfriend Lila (Deborah Ann-Woll) who openly tells him he idealizes his girlfriends and acts high and mighty when they fail to live up to his expectations. It’s adult in all the right ways.
Yet the film never fully follows through on that premise. The second act climax is Calvin trying to show Ruby she’s a construction of his imagination by making her literally jump up and down for him, and disturbingly bark like a dog on her hands and knees. I could have followed all of this, but the film never fully teaches Calvin a lesson. The film has a happy ending, but does Calvin truly deserve it? The way the film ends essentially resets the entire movie, except only one half of the new couple now has no idea about the past events. It’s an unsatisfying way to end the tale, and seems to just reiterate the romantic comedy ideal that change is unnecessary, people just work out.
The acting is good, but there seems to be too many side characters that show up purely to have their name on the poster. I’m talking about Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas especially. They show up as Calvin’s mother and step-father respectively, and do have an interesting story that’s never developed. We don’t come to understand why Calvin doesn’t like them, short of him just being a jerk. They’re in the film for about 10 minutes before disappearing completely. Dano is good, but you never come to love Calvin because of how unlikable he is to Ruby throughout. It becomes harder and harder to believe this headstrong, independent girl would put up with his crap for so long if he wasn’t controlling her through his typewriter. Kazan herself, the granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan, is effervescent and sweet. She’s the beam of light all the other characters swirl around, and I’d be interested in seeing her tackle serious fare down the line.
Ultimately, is Ruby Sparks worth watching? Yes. I know a lot of viewers love it, but I highly recommend you haven’t seen the Will Ferrell film Stranger than Fiction as they share so many similarities it’s astounding. The film is quick and cute, just don’t expect to be satisfied by the end.