Trumpeting the long-awaited sophomore effort of Little Miss Sunshine creators Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the trailer for Ruby Sparks tackles that age-old challenge of visualizing the tribulations of a writer, which are inherently and notoriously un-cinematic. Editing substantiates the daily grind of someone like Calvin (Paul Dano), a squirmy novelist whose bursts of inspiration are expressed via fast cuts of punched keys and typewriter carriage returns. Going a bit further, the preview shows us Calvin’s writerly thoughts in the office of his shrink (Elliot Gould), whose stucco, vented ceiling is seen through Calvin’s eyes and superimposed on his thoughts of the titular dream girl (Zoe Kazan), who starts as his written creation and then actually appears in his apartment.
Manifesting a writer’s ideas in three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood form is of course the ultimate way to commit them to film, and it’s the basic conceit of this quaint indie rom-com, which matches an author’s plight with the sweet reward of found love. As the trailer promises, Ruby Sparks is a less cynical exploration of territory already roamed in films like Secret Window and Stranger Than Fiction, wherein Will Ferrell’s lead character was in fact the doomed creation of Emma Thompson’s troubled author. Indeed, the similarity inevitably shows a lack of originality, and the sterile production design showcased in the preview only indicates a probable generic quality in the film. From Calvin’s ultra-modern space to his hip little typewriter, the film is shown to have a Pier 1-style, catalog aesthetic, which these days is more prevalent in supposedly arty films than pricey blockbusters.
But despite all the trailer’s missteps and boilerplate elements (the choral tune accompanying the tonal pick-me-up is dead-tired, while the flashes of big-name players like Annette Bening are dead-lazy in their hectic star promotion), it ably communicates a palpable sweetness that suggests it’s not just another cerebral quirkfest. Paul Dano, captured in panicky moments that yield excellent expositional soundbites, may show new range as a performer in this film, ditching his usual gloom and rage to inhabit an endearing, love-struck dork. Naturally, his earnestness is met with obligatory macho wisdom from a co-star (Chris Messina), who speaks for male stereotypes everywhere when Calvin’s control over Ruby is discussed. But Dano, ever at home in the roles he chooses, could very well overcome the shallow limits put on him by the film itself.
Where the trailer finally triumphs is in the chemistry between Dano and Kazan, who, in a bit of trivia only relevant for its apparent onscreen benefits, are an actual offscreen couple. Kazan penned the script and wrote the lead role for Dano, and there’s something undeniably effective about these two arthouse darlings sharing their rising-star romance with the audience. It may not be the kind of “magic” Calvin preciously professes, but in just over two minutes, it’s immediately more genuine than dozens of other filmic pairings. What’s more, for all its familiar beats, the trailer has the decency to withhold the whole of the plot, and never states if it’s the kind of film that’s bound for happily ever after. “Don’t tell me how it ends,” Ruby pleads, and thankfully, nobody does.
R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.