Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano star in "Ruby Sparks." (Merrick Morton / Fox Searchlight )
Imagine a 21st century romantic comedy that flirts with the classic Pygmalion myth — a Greek sculptor's beautiful statue comes to life — and throws in some Dr. Frankenstein "what have I created?" issues. Then you'll have a sense of"Ruby Sparks," an engagingly off-kilter love story of a writer, the girl of his dreams and the power of his pen.
The film is about as meta as meta gets. Real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan star as lovebirds Calvin (the writer) and Ruby (his dreamy dream girl). They are directed by another real-life couple, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, from a screenplay by Kazan, who had Dano in mind when she was writing. Love is definitely in the air, as well as under the microscope.
As stories involving novelists so often do, "Ruby Sparks" begins with a major case of writer's block. Calvin's first book at age 19 was a sensation, and he's been living on the fumes of that success for years. Prodding by his A-type brother Harry (Chris Messina) isn't helping much, nor is therapy with Dr. Rosenthal (a nice, if slight, turn by Elliott Gould, later followed by equally nice but slight turns by Annette Bening as Calvin's free-spirited mom and Antonio Banderas as her live-in love). Harder to bear is the praise showered on him by mentor and writing nemesis Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, who's super as a cloying literary vamp).
All that changes when Dr. Rosenthal gives Calvin an assignment: write a page about the imaginary girl who has recently invaded his dreams. A creative surge and 40 pages later, the writer's block is broken and the girl in his dreams has become the protagonist of his lively new novel. And, she's cooking breakfast in his kitchen. Really.
What? How? Huh? Like love itself, the film requires a serious leap of faith from the audience as well as from Calvin — to simply accept that a figment of his imagination has come to life. Herein lies the fun, and the folly, of "Ruby Sparks."
The film is concerned with what Calvin will do with the power he has to write, and rewrite, Ruby's life. Will he erase from her his pet peeves, or give her new talents, like the French she breaks into as soon as he puts it on page? Will he make her hopelessly devoted?
The underlying question is, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, if you get what you want, does that mean you got what you need? It is answered in fits of brilliance, and a few serious fumbles, capped by a final chapter that is sincerely awesome.
This is the first feature for Dayton and Faris since they made such a splash in 2006 with another quirky comedy, "Little Miss Sunshine," which included Dano in its ensemble cast. The indie hit won two Oscars before its broken-down VW bus and beauty-pageant dreams were done.
Except for the quirk factor, the two films couldn't be more different in design. The mess of an extended middle-class family so perfectly played in "Sunshine" has been traded for the solitary writer's life in "Ruby." A rambunctious and fractious cross-country journey is replaced by an interior, introspective one. What binds the films — and was better realized in "Little Miss Sunshine" — is the filmmakers' light touch with dark themes and their understanding of how to have a little fun with identity crises.
Kazan, a playwright making her screenwriting debut, shows a penchant for risk-taking that is refreshing, if not always spot on. And she's a whiz at dialogue that is fluent in hipster artiste-speak. In Calvin she's created a good stretch for Dano, allowing him to expose lighter shades of the vulnerability and angst that have come to characterize his darker roles — the mute, rebellious teen in "Sunshine," the fire-and-brimstone preacher in "There Will Be Blood."
And as an actress, Kazan's delicate face and expressively large eyes give her a kind of ethereal sensibility that fits Ruby's flighty eccentricities. But she has a tougher time with the sudden shifts in moods and emotions required as Calvin tinkers with his heroine.
Much of the action takes place inside Calvin's house, a study in white modern minimalism — its own blank page beautifully rendered by cinematographer Matthew Libatique and production designer Judy Becker. Ruby arrives on the scene like a sudden splash of color. There is a great deal of playfulness between the couple that will touch the romantic in most. Everything about their relationship is fine, near perfection, until they venture out into the real world where issues like love, hate, envy, regret and ex-girlfriends tend to complicate matters.
But mostly the movie is about how to make reality and romance with Ruby a dream, which happens to be far harder than turning a dream girl into reality in the first place.