Following up on one of the indie hits of the past decade is a hard act to follow. The film LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was not only one of the biggest box office indie grossers of the period but also was a film that crossed generational lines and even made a noise on the awards circuit (winning an Oscar for Alan Arkin as the curmudgeonly grandfather of a decidedly dysfunctional family). For co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, a sophomore effort is certain to come up short. However in the new film RUBY SPARKS, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the writer/directors have added more fantasy to create yet another film with great heart and humanity.
The story centers on Calvin (played with great charm by Paul Dano, the mopey teenager of the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE brood), whose first novel written in his teens was widely loved and treasured. However, in his 20s, he is severely blocked and rather tortured because of it. While seeing a psychiatrist, wryly played by comic legend Elliot Gould, he has the good or bad fortune to have an actual Muse appear. She is an ethereal beauty named Ruby (played by young actress Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script), who materializes in Calvin’s life and represents his ideal romantic partner, not to mention someone who he can completely control via his writings.
The fantasy premise is charming, if a little strained at times. Once the main relationship is established, the film introduces a number of big names (Annette Bening as his mother, Antonio Banderas as her lover, Steve Coogan as his literary agent) who are entertaining as themselves and don’t really need to further the plot much. While they add humor and a nice color to the film, the real activity is between Ruby and Calvin. The would-be novelist finds that controlling a woman by writing about her is not as easy or fulfilling as it may first appear. The movie’s intriguing in its fanciful way, and its ultimate message may be that as long as you’re alive, you are always in rewrite mode and capable of change. This is a gentle summer message for a gentle summer film.