Movie Review: “Ruby Sparks”

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“Ruby Sparks” is the great romantic gem of the summer, a diamond in the rough that bends genres, tickles the fancy and trips up expectations.

Writer and co-star Zoe Kazan, working with the directors of “Little Miss Sunshine,” concocts a romantic fantasy told from a male point of view, with a distinctly feminine sensibility. The adorably odd Kazan presents herself as the dream date of studiously odd Paul Dano. And odd-on-odd works in a tale you could sum up on a T-shirt.

“If you love something, set it free.”

Dano is Calvin, a young writer who found great fame as an even younger writer. And that curse of what his rival/mentor (Steve Coogan, hilarious) calls his “premature success” has created an epic case of writer’s block. Calvin lives with his dog Scotty (F. Scot Fitzgerald) in an expensive hillside Hollywood home. He resents the word “genius,” which is used in his presence far too often. He can’t get over the writer-girlfriend who ditched him, and can’t find another love because he only attracts women who “read my book in high school” and think they know him through his characters. He only finds love in his dreams.

“Women are different, up close,” he mutters.

So his shrink (Elliott Gould, on the mark) gives him an assignment. Write something, not for publication, about his dream date. Calvin does. And darned if she doesn’t come magically to life.

Ruby Sparks is a quirky waif, flirtatious and seriously into Calvin. She may tell him “You’re soooo not my type,” but plainly she is. He invented her.

A word about Dano’s reactions to this supernatural thing that’s happened to him. His Calvin is slack-jawed, speechless, manic and paranoid that anyone should find out that he’s literally seeing and sleeping with what must be an illusion. Only she isn’t.

Chris Messina looks nothing like Dano but is well-cast as his brother, and his reactions to this amazing thing that’s happened to Calvin are even more out there — a look of flushed, red-faced delight sweeps across his face. He lets us see that his character sees the possibilities. A woman, who like all women, is a “mystery” to men, can be written and re-written into a form that is pliable, flexible, consenting to Calvin’s every whim or desire.

Kazan plays the heck out of Ruby, especially in scenes where Calvin and his brother try this “rewrite her” theory out — bursting into French, instantly morphing into clingy, libidinous or infuriatingly upbeat, the very picture of “effervescent joy,” which Calvin has just typed onto the page.

But where the movie flirts with greatness is what happens in between the pages. Ruby, written as real, develops real personality traits that may push her away from Calvin, that may be more than this squirrelly scribe can handle.

“Ruby Sparks” comes close to cloying, at times, and hits a few dead stretches in between assorted romantic comedy cliches (courtship montages set to music). But Valerie Faris and Jonathan Drayton, the directors, keep the movie on its feet, finding teeny laughs in between the side-splitting moments. As Calvin discovers how complicated even a woman he’s written just for himself can be, the operatic aria “La donna e mobile” wafts through the score. “Woman is fickle,” Verdi composed. Calvin is just the latest to figure that out.

Kazan, who might have been condemned to forever be the more gorgeous leading lady’s quirky best friend, wrote and plays herself into a “New Zooey Deschanel” place with “Ruby Sparks.” Dano, the rail-thin, sensitive young man who has taken a decidedly indie career path since “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood,” makes his mark as a great comic straight man.

And Messina, an EveryNebbish who hasn’t had a role with this much fun in him since “Ira & Abbey,” just kills, amplifying Dano’s reactions, tossing comically cynical roadblocks in the way of true love that Kazan’s charm just bulldozes through.

In an art form starved for romantic comedies that work, writer, directors and cast have taken a preposterous premise and polished it into something special, here — not a masterpiece, but a messy, mushy delight. “Ruby Sparks” is like love itself — sweetness tinged with regret — and as close to the real thing as the movies ever get.

 

MPAA Rating:R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas

Credits: Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, written by Zoe Kazan. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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