The exercise of control by men over women is a subject matter best explored carefully, yet all too often it is tackled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Whilst this shock value can be effective at times, for many it is in the nuance of delicate discussion that the real questions beneath the conversation can present themselves. This latter method is the one employed by Ruby Sparks, as through a romantic comedy held together by a high-concept gimmick it challenges the very core of heterosexual relationships and the control men exert.
Ruby Sparks was written by Zoe Kazan, who plays the titular character, but this is no vehicle to showcase herself. Though her ability as both an actor and a writer are on display, she passes the limelight to her real-life partner Paul Dano, who takes on the lead role and acts as the protagonist of this film. He puts on a wonderful show as a man battling with himself, but not in any way one might expect.
The film revolves around Dano and his older brother, played with charm by Chris Messina. They are opposites in both their outward projections of themselves and their internal realities, which are also individually in contradiction. Kazan has proven herself to be a wonderful writer, crafting complex and flawed characters that show real depth here. Dano is the introverted and awkward beta to Messina’s confident and charismatic alpha, yet they share a realistic close brotherly bond. Messina works out at the gym so women will find him attractive, dresses well and takes care of his appearance, has a high-pressure corporate job, and yet is completely in love with his wife, with whom he has had a baby. Dano, on the other hand, is a dropout who wrote a bestselling novel a decade ago and has since been struck with writers’ block. He tags along with his brother to the gym but never really commits, he has a dog but finds it embarrassing, and he visits a therapist to help him get his life together. He wants love and companionship yet he has no friends and does not socialise. He rejects the idea of sleeping with his fans—much to his brother’s disapproval—as he wishes to be noble. His brother is just happy to be getting laid, with his wife, whom he loves.
The majority of the film takes place in Dano’s expansive yet sparse home. It is a cavernous place of plain white walls and steel handrails, devoid of personality and cold in its emptiness. The only thing of warmth that feels vaguely human within it is an old typewriter, which is Dano’s writing tool of choice. It sits unused and he stares at it, as if that empty page will somehow inspire his creativity. Exacerbated, he turns to his therapist for help, and receives a writing assignment as homework. This inspires a dream, which in turn catalyses Dano into writing again, and he churns out a character and begins writing scenes containing himself and her. The more he writes, the more he falls in love with his own creation, and parts of her life—underwear, bathroom products, a razor—begin appearing around his empty home, bringing with them a sense of colour and life.
It is well-documented that writers should bring characters to life instead of creating caricatures or fantasies. Dano is supposedly a genius writer who has crafted a world-changing novel plus several short stories, yet here he falls into the trap of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. When his brother reviews the first few chapters of the manuscript, he points out what we—the audience—are all thinking: the girl is a man’s creation and women are not like that. The obvious contradictions in Messina’s character make perfect sense for a real person, and it is from that place of being authentic that his criticism of Dano’s writing comes from. Dano, however, continues to write, until the woman he has created—Ruby Sparks—appears in the flesh.
There are some very funny moments in this film, as well as some thoughtful ones, but the brutality of the questions it raises burrow into you long after the credits have rolled. This is not addressing issues with a sledgehammer but a tapeworm, and it is an incredibly effective delivery method. What if you could rewrite your partner to suit your needs, to fine-tune their faults, to alter them and force them to be exactly what you wanted them to be? Would it be right? Would you be happy?
As the film progresses, Dano and Messina somehow invert, yet their character arcs are both wholly understandable and logical, and therefore right. It is truly skilful writing to manage this, and so praise must go to Kazan once again. Her character and how she is moulded and changed is both fascinating and heart-breaking to watch, and she presents a real person where Dano creates a fiction. This contradiction of reality and fantasy is the central tension, and it is masterful.
Credit is also due to the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who work as a pair and who here have gone beyond what could be expected to create a clever and lean film that strips everything superfluous away, whilst appearing to be something much more full and diverting. It is an excellent example of storytelling through subtext and well worth seeing.
The wider ensemble cast is also impressive, featuring attention-grabbing turns from Steve Coogan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and the always wonderful Elliot Gould as the therapist. Each one steals the film in their own way, and yet none take the limelight from the central couple or Messina. Everyone here is up to par, and so the film whips itself up with brilliant performances and clever writing into something truly great.
There is little fault to find, as most of it is deliberate misdirection, but this is not a perfect film. It could offer more, it could challenge more, but then it would be something else. It could elicit more emotion, more feeling, more love or more hate from the audience, but again the subtlety of its burrowing would be lost. Like its characters it is itself a contradiction, and should be seen as such, but more than that, it should be seen.