A Spark of Imagination
by Madeleine Saaf
Imagine your dream love interest. For Calvin Weir-Fields, that person is Ruby Sparks. Ruby’s fiery red hair shimmers under the sun. She has an unusual past, starting in Dayton, Ohio where she was kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher…or maybe it was her Spanish teacher; Calvin can’t remember. Ruby doesn’t own a computer and she always cheers for the underdog. “Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes,” Calvin explains. Ruby is Calvin’s dream girl; unfortunately for him she isn’t real.
Calvin (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine), a nearing-thirty writer who hasn’t been able to produce anything of value in ten years, met Ruby in a dream. With the assignment from his therapist to write one page on Ruby, Calvin is consumed in crafting this ideal love story between himself and the girl of his literal dreams. He eventually admits to his therapist, played by the under-used Elliott Gould, that he is “writing to spend time with her.” Soon he no longer has to write to “spend time” with Ruby as objects begin appearing in his apartment – first a high-heel, then some women’s undergarments, and eventually, Ruby herself. Ruby, played by the fantastic Zoe Kazan, has truly come to life from his words.
This novel concept, which goes to make fantasy seem almost realistic, is brought to life by Kazan’s brilliant acting and her great script. Kazan has written a character that many actresses would love to play – the out-of-reach object of the hero’s affection – but also a role that requires much more than the surface level “dream girls” of many Hollywood tales, as the character shows an array of complicated emotions that change at the drop of a hat and even at times physicality that was exhausting just to watch. Ruby takes on a life of her own until Calvin recognizes he is losing control and goes back to the drawing board to make adjustments to his creation. Through tweaking Ruby’s personality, Calvin quickly realizes that being able to change the parts of Ruby that he doesn’t like dissolves his dream and ends up bringing disastrous yet humorous results.
The best scene comes when Calvin reaches his breaking point. He unleashes his secret to her and spends several heart-wrenching minutes proving the control his fingers paired with his typewriter have over her. This scene brings out the best acting in the entire film as Kazan contorts to the demands of her own script. Dano gives enough to his role as is required, at some points evoking tough emotions and portraying the “struggling genius” well, but his performance, along with most others in the film, is largely overshadowed by the dazzling Kazan.
The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, have produced an impressive work; however, the film pales in comparison to their most talked about indie-hit, Little Miss Sunshine. While the characters in Little Miss Sunshine felt fresh and inspired, Calvin appears to be a cliché that has been seen numerous times in recent indie romantic comedies– the soft spoken, wiry writer who just wants a quirky, Midwestern girl with straight cut bangs and a penchant for classic literature. Luckily Kazan saves her own character from being another Zooey Deschanel clone and proves she isn’t just another “pixie manic dream girl.” Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) tells Calvin that “quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real,” but Kazan makes viewers feel that Ruby is real, even though she is quirky and messy, nevertheless the materialization of a fictional character.
At times the pace lags and occasionally whole scenes feel as though they would have been better left on the cutting room floor, like the trip Ruby and Calvin take to his mother’s house that she shares with her boyfriend, played respectively by the great Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. Fortunately the witty writing, captivating cinematography, and innovative idea kept me anxiously awaiting the conclusion of the lovers’ tale. By the end, it becomes clear that Ms. Kazan is a force to be reckoned with as both an actress and writer, and has the potential to become as influential to the film world as her late grandfather, Elia Kazan.