When you hear the plot of Ruby Sparks, you’ll think you’ve heard it before. You’ll be right, in a sense — the story’s roots go back to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. But you’ll be wrong, too, because this retelling has the benefit of a terrific budding screenwriter with a fresh, funny, unexpectedly moving perspective on the tale.
It begins with Calvin (Paul Dano), a famous author who wrote a critically acclaimed, massive-selling debut novel at age 19. Now, 10 years later, he’s still trying to start his second book amid whispers that he’s a one-and-done case. Prodded by his psychotherapist (Elliott Gould), Calvin writes about a girl who appears to him in his dreams. Red-haired, kooky, impulsive, artistic, and vibrantly sexy, she adores Calvin and doesn’t care about his literary fame. Enraptured by the joy of creating her, Calvin names her Ruby. He then becomes deeply afraid for his sanity when he wakes up one morning and finds a flesh-and-blood version of Ruby (Zoe Kazan) in his kitchen, wearing his shirt, eating his cereal, and acting like she’s always been there.
You could say Ruby Sparks wrote herself into existence; the 28-year-old Kazan is the screenwriter here as well. The granddaughter of seminal theater and film director Elia Kazan has acted in films such as Revolutionary Road and It’s Complicated. This is her first screenwriting effort, and she neatly skates around the pitfalls in the story, winking at them as she passes. When Calvin’s older brother Harry (Chris Messina) first encounters Ruby in print, he’s unimpressed. “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real!” he tells Calvin. “You haven’t written a person. You’ve written a girl.” We’re never told Harry’s occupation, but he should definitely be a book critic.
The married directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris hasn’t been heard from since Little Miss Sunshine. Their great contribution is that they don’t try to do too much. Their sense of composition and framing enhances the jokes — Ruby’s appearance in Calvin’s kitchen is nicely stage-managed — and they find the right tone without sprinkling pixie dust over the proceedings. As Calvin realizes that Ruby is real and not a psychotic hallucination, Dayton and Faris capture the first flush of love in all its ecstasy.
The same goes for the lead actors, who have excellent chemistry. (They’ve been a real-life couple for five years, so it’s no wonder.) Dano uses his tall, spindly frame to good slapstick effect and fully commits to Calvin’s unattractive aspects. He does well in a difficult role, but Kazan’s job is harder still, portraying Ruby as a too-perfect male fantasy figure in the early scenes and then as more of a real person later on. She does both well, though she slips a bit when it comes to integrating the different versions of Ruby.
Kazan the writer is willing to carry the conceit to its logical end, even when it goes to a dark place hinted at early on when Harry realizes that everything that Calvin writes about Ruby comes true: “You can make her do anything you want! For men everywhere, tell me you won’t let that go to waste.” Calvin reveals priggish, controlling streaks in his character around his hippie mom (Annette Bening) who embarrasses him. Worse comes to the surface during a scathing encounter with his ex-girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll), whom he describes as a heartless bitch but who turns out to have good reason to be angry at him. When Calvin and Ruby start having relationship troubles like every other couple, he can’t resist trying to fix her. This has hilarious results at first, as the sentence “Ruby was miserable without Calvin” turns her into the clingiest girlfriend imaginable. Still, it culminates in a hard-to-watch scene when Calvin crosses a line and abuses his power over her.
This comedy becomes piercing at the end, when Calvin attains a heartbreaking pitch of eloquence as he uses his writing to confront all the wrongs that he’s done. True love means seeing the other person for who they are rather than who you’d like them to be, and the film’s illustration of that saves it from being just a clever exercise. We’ve had other magic-realist fables about love recently (the admirable Lars and the Real Girl is much along the same lines), but the wit, wisdom, and beauty of this one are unsurpassed. We don’t know if Zoe Kazan shares Calvin’s hatred of being called a genius, but if she writes a few more movies like Ruby Sparks, we’ll just have to start calling her one.
Starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Written by Zoe Kazan. Rated R.