Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Calvin Weir-Fields has a problem that can only manifest itself in being acted out by Paul Dano. Recessive and pained in one moment, fluttering like a spooked owl the next, and moping about his status as a successful and (from all appearances) well-off writer who merely attracts legions of adoring fans rather than a real relationship, Calvin seems precisely calibrated to bring out the actor's worst instincts. Dano has given plenty of strong performances; the directors of Ruby Sparks, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris even shepherded his breakout turn in Little Miss Sunshine as a mute-by-choice teenager. Here, he's somehow both fragile and manic, and Calvin comes off as kind of a creep.
I'm sure the filmmakers would assure me that Calvin isn't supposed to be likable; indeed, it becomes painfully clear that the movie views him as a case study in male weakness more than a human being. Desperate to get over his break-up and long-term writer's block, Calvin agrees to an exercise suggested by his therapist (Elliott Gould) and writes a character sketch about someone who likes his dog Scottie -- and, by extension, him. Inspiration strikes hard, and soon he's producing reams of pages that describe the story of Ruby Sparks, his heroine slash dreamgirl. Then Ruby turns up, in the flesh, in his home, the ideal girlfriend he has imagined for himself.
The "real" Ruby has charms that can only manifest themselves in being acted out by Zoe Kazan. Actually, you can picture just about any indie-minded movie actress bringing Ruby to life, but Kazan—in a behind-the-scenes twist, also the screenwriter pulling the strings for real-life boyfriend Dano—has great, open-hearted screen presence. Calvin makes Ruby a composite of cute quirks; Kazan makes her the character who deflates the movie by leaving the screen. In her hands, Ruby's great-cooking, F. Scott Fitzgerald-ignoring, tights-wearing, city-hopping personality somehow appears natural.
These are all details Calvin included in his manuscript, and he discovers that if he adds more on his old-timey typewriter, his writerly quirks come true: he can make Ruby speak French, or pine for him with maximum desperation. At first—well, not at first; after a tedious section where he struggles to believe that he's not cracking up—he vows not to use this power, and simply enjoy the fruits of his conjured relationship. But allowing Ruby to live her own life has consequences; their relationship gets messier, more real, and Calvin tries to figure out how to correct it.
Here, the movie goes darker than you might expect; Kazan's screenplay leavens the cuteness you might expect from Team Little Miss Sunshine. She's reaching for a sad, sometimes twisted look at the way people try to control their romantic partners and resist change, and the movie has its moments of stark insight. What we hear of Calvin's dialogue-heavy novel often sounds like a screenplay itself, and the movie flirts with a critique of indie rom-com clichés when Calvin's brother Harry (Chris Messina) reminds him that "quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real."
Fair enough, but the meta-observations about the lessons Calvin needs to learn don't stop there. Kazan lacks the divine touch of Charlie Kaufman, admittedly an unfair comparison (also lacking that touch: most screenwriters ever). But while Kaufman has a gift for making leaps into magical realism seem like the most natural progression in the world, this is a magical realist movie where characters all but explain that what they're experiencing is magical realism. Kazan also has her characters, most prominently Calvin's deus ex girlfriend Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), explain what's wrong with Calvin, to his face and the audience's, square on the nose.
And in the end, Calvin's character is just as contrived as Ruby—maybe more. Calvin creates a lovely romantic partner out of thin air to control; Kazan, as the writer, creates a lousy one to screw up. He's fussy, sulky, selfish and self-pitying; in other words, a bad boyfriend who thinks he's a sensitive guy. Frankly, I'm not sure I needed an entire movie to explain this contradiction to me. Dano and Kazan are both very talented; in Ruby Sparks, their creation just drags them down.
Opens July 25