'Ruby Sparks' Shines
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
It's a very natural thing to be a little freaked out when you're introducing your new girlfriend to your friends and parents and extended family. It's tougher for ex-best-seller novelist and ex-prodigy Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) when he brings home his new perfect love in "Ruby Sparks." Not just because Calvin's so in love, but also because, inconveniently, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) isn't real. Not "isn't real" in some new-age or psychological way, but more like as in "impossible." Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' follow-up to "Little Miss Sunshine," from a script by Kazan, is a great, smart romance about love and love stories, with comedy and insights.
We first meet Calvin blocked and bored and bummed out. His brother Harry (Chris Messina), a husband and father, lovingly nags Calvin to the gym and encourages him to try dating again. His shrink, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould), tells him to write, as therapy and work alike, about "the kind of girl who could like his dog." Calvin kinda splits the difference, and then, unblocked, he sits down and types out an entire romance between himself and his creation, Ruby.
Calvin is inspired, productive and happy. He's not, however, ready for the morning when Ruby herself is somehow in his kitchen making him breakfast, idly chatting about what they're both doing later. Calvin thinks he's crazy, then realizes he's just crazy in love with Ruby, who knows -- and is -- everything Calvin's written about her. It's an indie romance that finds both deep feeling and funny comedy in the idea that Ruby, as Calvin's dream girl, reveals a little too much about his dreams and nightmares. It's a fractured fairy tale, short on special effects but rich with both emotion and intelligence.
Dayton and Faris direct "Ruby Sparks" with a firm but light hand. Their long-coming second film is a nice modernized spin on the classic my-art-is-now-alive love story as seen in both "Pygmalion" and "Weird Science." But when it becomes apparent that Ruby is real and sweet and a hot little minx, Calvin decides to simply accept this magic as part of the greater magic of finding the love of his life. So how do you introduce your new, real, fictional girlfriend to Mom?
There's fun and fantasy and sweet romance. There's also a hint, here and there, that Kazan has perhaps written this script as a film and as something like film criticism. Too many indie movies are fueled by girls who pop up out of nowhere in vintage dresses. They then sweetly and utterly fall for the hero, who is not coincidentally based on the (male) writer-director. Critic Nathan Rabin may have best named this character cliché the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The MPDG as of late has increased in number, to diminished effect. Kazan's Sparks is a winning part of a funny fantasy, but she's also a look at the issues of control and authorship in art and the questions of control and respect in love.
Dano's performance gives him a warm boost of adrenaline-fueled comedy and real feeling here, making him credible as both a funny romantic lead and an utter son of a bitch. Kazan has written herself a showcase, and her work is sincere and real even when the plot is at its most fantastic. A scene where Ruby learns a few facts, the hard way, vibrates with uncomfortable tension expressed through tough physical and tough emotional acting choices.
"Ruby Sparks" plays light and fun for a long time, but it's also setting you up for some hard hits when the tough stuff starts. If the Academy or other suchlike groups have any interest in a real performance from a real talent, Ms. Kazan's work here, as a writer and an actor, is worthy of consideration. In a romantic-comedy field too often defined by cheap counterfeit or tawdry excess, this is a rare gem of a romantic comedy, sharp and smart with a warm glow.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.