Or (500) days of Weird Science. The story of a blocked writer who inadvertently wills his female creation into existence – only for the dream to turn sour – Ruby Sparks is being sold as the kind of retro, instagrammed, plinky-xylophone-scored Sundance-glazed twee fest that will either float your (vintage) boat or compel you to self-harm.
The male lead is a sensitive, tortured artist who owns a loveable, neurotic dog. At its centre is Ruby herself, who looks and sounds an awful lot like the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ personified by Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel’s entire being.
But this tale has a sting, and is actually (in part at least) a riposte to that kind of film and character. That would be fine, if Ruby Sparks didn’t do such an impressive job of being frequently exactly the kind of movie it’s critiquing.
There’s actually a very neat idea in here, a canny message about the way certain men pine for an idealised type of woman without considering their own major flaws and the reductive nature of having static, unthreatening girl-women in films who exist solely to teach life lessons to troubled males – but the execution misfires badly.
Dano, whose short career of playing hateful individuals has surely reached its absolute zenith here, is Calvin, a literary genius struggling to follow up his debut (Steve Coogan has a little cameo as his agent playing, rather too convincingly, a middle-aged lothario who pervs on young women at parties). Calvin mopes around his fashionably barren LA flat unable to write anything on his (adorable, vintage) typewriter. The only person who will hang out with him is his brother (Chris Messina). The fantastic Messina is a beacon of light in this film, as he is in the upcoming romcom Celeste and Jesse Forever (otherwise a grisly, unfunny disaster). He’s one of the few people in Ruby Sparks to resemble an actual human being and gets all the best lines.
Anyway, inspired by a (adorable, vintage) girl he meets in the park, Calvin begins sketching an outline for a character – a crazy, free-spirited colourful tights-wearing kookstress called Ruby. But then the craziest thing happens – Calvin wakes up to find Ruby is living in his flat and in love with him. Everything’s great until she begins to exhibit actual human tendencies as a consequence of living with Calvin (like wanting to hang out with other people rather than her monstrous, self-pitying ‘creator’). So the passive-aggressive twerp flips and starts frantically rewriting her to fit his own needs and desires.
Ruby Sparks rather too closely apes the Charlie Kaufman model of meta-fiction, but doesn’t quite have the courage of its (or his) convictions. Instead of exploring the central conceit and twisting it into unusual shapes (as Eternal Sunshine does, beautifully) it just riffs on one sole note endlessly, like a scratchy vintage 7” single stuck in a groove. The magic realism element of Ruby’s existence is never really explored. She may as well not even be an invention considering where the story winds up.
There’s a nagging sense throughout that perhaps Kazan wrote something darker and more personal and the directors have softened it. There is one truly upsetting, horrible scene where Ruby is being controlled by Calvin, writhing like a demonic, possessed character every time he hammers out a new mood or action. It’s a terrifying literal manifestation of relationship control.
It’s good to have actors who don’t crave to be likeable and playing a fragile, hermetic control freak would be a tough gig for anyone. Paul Dano may well be the sweetest, loveliest man in the world but his default position in films is to be the most punchable human ever to grace the silver screen. And if he is supposed to be a whiny, friendless sad-sack who fears women with any will of their own, why should we care what happens to him – or his creation?
It’s possible to make a really interesting film about this kind of nerdy existential male and the women they idealise. Noel Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh (ironically, like Dano and Kazan, a couple in real life too) made the recent overlooked Greenberg, which operates along very similar lines, and Greenberg himself is a fairly appalling individual. But it works because the film, despite flirting dangerously with some of the worst excesses of US indie, ultimately feels like it’s about real people. You may not like them but you recognise them.
This could’ve been a nicely subversive inversion of the sickly-sweet Sundance rom-com-dram; a cupcake laced with arsenic, 500 days of (b)ummer. Ultimately though, this Ruby sparks but never catches fire. Perhaps that’s because like the vintage kookstress herself, although it sometimes feels real, there’s actually nothing authentic here.