3.5 / 5 stars
To thoroughly enjoy the romantic comedy Ruby Sparks, you’ll need to be an old pro at suspending disbelief. It’s a necessity for the lead character and it’s required activity for the audience, as well. It’ll help you hop the hurdle that is the film’s well-worn conceit, that a man’s fantasy girl can materialize just because he makes it so. But once you jump in, you’ll find a film that successfully keeps reality at bay, bringing life and loveliness to what should be an annoyingly predictable story.
There’s no escaping the familiarity. Color it one way and you’ve got Mannequin. Another hue gives you Weird Science. Add some shadow and depth and you have Stranger than Fiction. Calvin (Paul Dano), a successful writer lacking a few social skills, dreams of a wonderful woman, puts her on the page, and soon finds her living in his house. As sophomoric as it may sound on paper, Ruby Sparks clicks, making the most of rich performances by stars Dano and Zoe Kazan, with a script by Kazan that embraces as much convention as it intends to buck.
Directed by Little Miss Sunshine partners Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (below, on the set), Ruby Sparks has just enough smarts, its gimmick a metaphor for the levels of control — or lack of control — that friends and lovers can have over one another in a relationship. Once Calvin gets past his initial shock and confirms that his creation is indeed living in the material world, he instantly falls in love. Kazan, sweet, impish, cute and wide-eyed with affection, makes it easy. As Ruby, she’s an amalgam of early-romance uber-emotions, expressing jealousy, desire and confusion like a lovesick schoolgirl. But as the connection between Calvin and Ruby evolves naturally, she needs something everyone needs: independence.
If this were Calvin B.R. (Before Ruby), he’d have to react like the rest of us. Hash out his emotions, ease up his grip, or break up with the girl. But Calvin can potentially change Ruby’s moods with a just few keystrokes. Kazan’s script goes to surprisingly funny extremes to show us Calvin’s power — and the stars are definitely game — but there’s something effectively uncomfortable about a man having that much emotional control over a woman (this would have less impact if the genders were reversed). The discomfort becomes more realized with time, culminating in an exhausting sequence, daring for the possibility that it might fall flat on its face for some audiences.
Dano has evolved into a competent, unique lead player, despite the fact that his looks, youth and film choices tend to define him as just a quiet hipster. Here he gives us the expected nervousness and astonishment, but he’s able to convey a deeper, subtler palette of anxiety that is more mature than the growing pains we’ve seen in Little Miss Sunshine or Gigantic. With a hearty script and a change to his look, Dano is far more James Spader than Lou Pucci (no offense to Pucci). It’s a point of progress that probably began with There Will Be Blood, and may be necessary for the indie actors of Dano’s generation to continue moving forward.
For as much as Dano fans (there are plenty, if a Boston Q&A session is any indication) and Kazan admirers will swoon over their performances, Chris Messina, as Calvin’s brother, is a legitmate scene stealer. He’s the voice of reason in a movie that demands one to successfully pay off the fantasy. Messina, from Julie & Julia and Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, offers control, intensity and a giddy incredulity that gives Ruby Sparks some early weight and an extra comic tone. It’s one of the best and most valuable supporting performances seen this year.
There’s a slosh of hippie indie style here too, in the form of Calvin’s kooky parents (played with infectious happiness by Annette Bening and the great Antonio Banderas). Their presence is strictly for narrative contrast, and the faux energy is right out of Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, an overdone film in which Kazan co-starred. Sure, we’ve seen it before. But we’ve seen plenty of Ruby Sparks before, and it still delivers a lovable little romantic fantasy.