Title: Ruby Sparks
Directors: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Antonio Banderas, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat, Aasif Mandvi, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Wallace Langham
A winning deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl subgenre by way of “Stranger Than Fiction,” the beguiling, effervescent “Ruby Sparks” is a movie with both charm and a certain psychological heft. The screenwriting debut of costar Zoe Kazan — the daughter of screenwriters Robin Swicord and Nicholas Kazan, and the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan — this fun, enticing little curio deftly juggles disparate tones in a manner reminiscent of “(500) Days of Summer,” existing at a fanciful intersection of romance, literary invention and self-delusion.
Los Angeles novelist Calvin Weir-Field (Paul Dano) is coasting on the fumes of his celebrated first novel, racked by writer’s block and uncertain of how to proceed with his overdue long-form follow-up. After being given an assignment by his therapist (Elliott Gould), Calvin has a breakthrough, diving into yarns of rhapsodic prose about a girl, Ruby (Kazan), who visits him in his dreams. Then she shows up in his living room, every detail as he wrote. Certain he’s gone mad, Calvin confides in his older brother Harry (Chris Messina), the only person to have read his manuscript pages on Ruby.
It’s then that Calvin discovers this wild, unlikely power isn’t yet capped. He’s conjured Ruby into existence, but can also still change her by simply sitting down at his typewriter and adding to his story — something he swears not to do. As the idealized glow of Calvin’s relationship with Ruby begins to fade, however, he tinkers with her character around the edges, which has consequences in the real world.
Its premise is set up for broad farce, but there’s a pleasant tenderness and intimacy to “Ruby Sparks,” as well as a blistering immediacy. It’s a movie that feels alive and caffeinated in every frame, but not in a showy, look-at-me sort of way. It’s cute in a bit of a mannered, bohemian way, yes, but its ideas are much more fruitfully explored and cast into relief in this budgeted telling than they likely would be in a grander, big studio re-imagination of the same conceit. Kazan comes at the concept from a literary perspective, exploring the notion of a writer who pens the lover he thinks he wants — a bundle of “adorkable” qualities whose messy past make her endearing, but also a girl who Harry assures Calvin doesn’t exist in real life — and then finds himself threatened by the live-in complexities of those very same traits, and the chaotic problems to which they lend themselves. Somewhat common characters are also rendered far less so by the fact that Kazan knows she’s playing around with a couple archetypes, as well as the depth and skill with which she sketches them.
Like the more swooning, romantic portions of last year’s “Like Crazy,” “Ruby Sparks” movingly captures the bloom of young love. Dano and Kazan (a longtime off-screen couple) obviously have a rich, infatuating chemistry, and it’s put to fantastic use here. The rest of the supporting cast — Annette Bening as Calvin’s hippie mother, Antonio Banderas as his wood-carving artist stepfather, and Steve Coogan as a passive-aggressively competitive fellow writer and mentor — is equally fantastic, but it’s chiefly the show of these two young actors, and they deliver nuanced, emotionally perceptive work.
“Ruby Sparks” recalls other films (certainly “Harvey” and “Adaptation”) in flitting fashion, but it doesn’t cede or trade away its unique personality to any other work, in the gimmicky pursuit of pat resolution. After Ruby finally learns the truth about how she and Calvin came to be a couple, the film’s conclusion both puts a bow on things, closing a narrative loop, and leaves them ambiguous and open-ended. Is “Ruby Sparks” a morality tale, per se, a bedazzled cinematic meditation on free will, or just an inventive romance jazzed up with some metaphysical jewelry? It’s all three, really. Or at least enough of each to kickstart a wonderful conversation.
Written by: Brent Simon