The Little Miss Sunshine directors deliver a high-concept love story that only occasionally falters.
"Salinger had the right idea," an older novelist informs a younger one early in Ruby Sparks. "Write what you can, then disappear." The young man receiving the advice is Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), who published a highly acclaimed book at the tender age of 19 and has spent the subsequent decade coming awfully close to disappearing. He has no real friends apart from his brother, Harry (Chris Messina); no romantic prospects; and no ideas for another novel. His days consist of walking his terrier, visiting his therapist (Elliott Gould), and staring into the horrible, empty infinity of the blank page on his typewriter.
But then he dreams of a girl, a girl who likes his dog, the dog he'd bought in the specific hope that it might help him meet a girl. He is inspired and, with his therapist's encouragement, he begins a novel about his nocturnal muse. He dreams of the girl by night, and he writes her by day. He gives her a name, Ruby Sparks. She's an amateur painter, 26 years old, raised in Dayton, Ohio.
The line between Calvin's inner and outer worlds gradually becomes porous. He finds a woman's shoe in his house, then a strange razor, panties, a bra. And one morning, there she is in the flesh: his Ruby (Zoe Kazan), casually wearing his shirt, eating cereal in his kitchen. "Hey, you want a bite?" she asks. "It's Crispix."
The two fall in love—or rather, they are already in love: he, because he made her, she, because that is the way he made her. Nor is Ruby a figment of his imagination. She goes on walks with him and the dog; she meets Harry and his wife. (Calvin, to Harry, explaining Ruby's miraculous advent: "Stranger things have happened." Harry, responding: "I don't think so.") It's all surprisingly normal, save for the fact that Calvin—to Harry's great envy—can go to his typewriter and write into Ruby any new characteristic he wants: a mood, an aptitude, whatever. It is a power he will eventually, inevitably, abuse.
Ruby Sparks is the second feature of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who brought us 2006's Little Miss Sunshine. The screenplay is by Kazan herself, who is third-generation Hollywood royalty (granddaughter of Elia, daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord) and also a real-life item with her leading man, Dano. It lends a neat, if dizzying, circularity to the proceedings: She has written his character, who in turn writes hers.
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The first third or so of the movie is an utter treat: clever, witty, impeccably balancing the magical and the mundane. Envision (500) Days of Summer as retold by Charlie Kaufman and you won't be far off. But, like Ruby herself, it is perhaps a little too good to be true. The movie begins to sag in the middle act (in which we meet Calvin's mother, played by Annette Bening, and her beau, played by Antonio Banderas), and then rushes itself a bit toward the end. That's the problem with high-concept: You don't merely need to achieve the proper altitude, you need to maintain it.
All told though, Ruby Sparks is a fine film. Despite its pacing issues, Kazan's script is a good one, and her performance—don't call Ruby a manic pixie dream girl!—is smooth and disarming. Dano, who is aging into unexpected good looks, gives a customarily assured performance as the uptight Calvin. And nice supporting turns are given by Bening, Banderas, Gould, Steve Coogan (as the elder novelist who helped Calvin along), and especially Messina, who has many of the film's funniest moments. Along the way, there are clever nods to Harvey and Cinderella, to Arrested Development (Alia Shawkat appears as a character named "Mabel") and Ricky Jay.
In its final act, Ruby Sparks ventures into dark territory, disinterring the buried furies of immature male desire, before steering back toward a gentler conclusion. "Just don't tell me how it ends," one character pleads to another. I won't.
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