The word becomes flesh in “Ruby Sparks,” an engaging if only fitfully realized fantasy about a novelist who falls so desperately in love with his latest character that he wills her into existence. Starting off in fanciful romantic-comedy territory, Zoe Kazan’s screenplay flirts with dark, neurotic notions concerning the male tendency to idealize/control women, a clever conceit that ultimately resolves itself along overly smooth, therapeutic lines. Deftly performed by leads Paul Dano and Kazan, this long-awaited sophomore feature from helmers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris won’t post “Little Miss Sunshine” numbers but should conjure respectable smarthouse biz for Fox Searchlight.
Broadly described, the script’s loopy premise recalls everything from a classic “Twilight Zone” episode (1960’s “A World of His Own”) to 2006’s “Stranger Than Fiction.” Considered in terms of its themes, specifically the agonies of artistic creation and chronic male insecurity, it suggests something Woody Allen might have dreamed up with Charlie Kaufman, even if it’s less moment-to-moment inventive than that talent combo implies. Certainly it’s hard not to think of Allen when confronted with Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano), a shy, bespectacled Los Angeles-based novelist who’s just a few tics short of a nebbish.
Having made the mistake of writing a literary sensation at a young age, twentysomething Calvin is having trouble with his follow-up effort, a struggle that recently cost him a long-term relationship. With little company except for a dog that shares his self-esteem issues, he takes the advice of a shrink (Elliott Gould) and tries an off-the-cuff writing exercise. Using an old-fashioned manual typewriter that turns out to be all too necessary for plot purposes, he pounds out a detailed outline for a character whose name, Ruby Sparks, seems equally inspired by her dark red hair and her radiant personality.
Smitten with his protagonist, a quirky, free-spirited painter with unconventional taste in men, Calvin shows the manuscript to his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), who responds with brutal honesty: “You haven’t written a person.” Harry turns out to be dead wrong, as Calvin discovers when he comes face-to-face with Ruby (Kazan) in his kitchen the next morning. He may be a good writer, but he didn’t know he was that good.
Outlandish as this development is, the script puts it across in disarmingly funny and romantic fashion. Entirely unaware that she’s someone’s intellectual/psychological construct, Ruby presents herself as Calvin’s adoring g.f., and once his shock wears off, he happily accepts this state of affairs. Like any other person, Ruby can walk, talk, eat, sleep, make love and lose her temper. Yet while she seems capable of exercising her free will, her actions and moods are ultimately dictated by whatever her creator-lover writes about her, something Calvin naively vows he won’t use to his advantage.
The ideas being grappled with here are so transparent, they barely qualify as subtext.If Ruby embodies an elusive feminine ideal, she also represents that much-desired creative alchemy that occurs when a fictional character takes on a life of its own. Certainly she seems more three-dimensional than Calvin’s artist mother (Annette Bening), who lives in bohemian bliss with her avant-garde-furniture-making lover (a grizzled Antonio Banderas), as seen in an extended comic centerpiece that signals the onset of Calvin and Ruby’s relational woes.
There’s little doubt that Kazan has written a sly, amusing portrait of male self-absorption and artistic tyranny, and her charming, vivacious performance (some of which, in a particularly droll gag, is delivered in French) is charged with undercurrents of anger and defiance that serve to rebuke Calvin’s obsessive need for control. At one key juncture, their dynamic brings the picture into such frightening, emotionally sadistic territory that one legitimately begins to fear for the characters’ safety.
Ruby’s narrative function is to flatter and challenge Calvin, to satisfy his craving for validation even as she ruthlessly exposes it. Either way, however, she remains subordinate to his ego, which is at once a necessity and a limitation of the story. One keeps hoping Ruby will somehow cast off the shackles of her author’s imagination and take the film that bears her namesake to its illogical extreme, into a realm of brazen irrationality. Yet even as it brings her to life, the picture keeps her in her place, right down to its sweet, mildly self-congratulatory ending.
If the result feels like a Pinocchio story that spends too much time with Geppetto, or a takedown of narcissism that never breaks free of what it’s critiquing, Dano nonetheless makes Calvin compelling company. Thesp’s feel for socially awkward types makes him a natural fit for this boy genius whose life experience and understanding of women have yet to catch up with his talent. Though he bears no fraternal resemblance to Dano, Messina provides invaluable comic support, and Bening and Banderas joyfully enliven their short stretch of screentime.
As they did on “Little Miss Sunshine,” musicvideo/commercial helmers Dayton and Faris tackle a first-time screenwriting effort with smooth, unfussy results. The most distinctive craft element is the music, blending classical selections with Nick Urata’s arpeggio-heavy score to produce dramatic, often frenzied accompaniment for Calvin’s turmoil. Well-chosen L.A. locations are nicely showcased by Matthew Libatique’s lensing on the Alexa camera, though a certain digital roughness is apparent in the outdoor shots.