You know how a Charlie Kaufman script will begin with one kinda neat metafictional idea (a puppeteer creates a portal into John Malkovich’s brain; a theater director creates a work so ambitious it starts to take over his own life), then fold that idea on itself again and again until it reaches insane heights of weirdness? Ruby Sparks (Fox Searchlight), a romantic fantasy written by its 28-year-old star Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of director Elia, and daughter of screenwriter Nicholas Kazan) and directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, is like Kaufman without the folds. Kazan’s script takes a kinda neat metafictional idea (a lonely novelist unwittingly writes his dream girlfriend into existence) and then just statically contemplates that idea for an hour and a half.
Ruby Sparks would seem well-positioned to provide insight into romantic relationships in the creative class: Its co-directors and its co-stars (Kazan and Paul Dano) are both couples in real life. And while we’ve probably had enough movies about the scourge of writer’s block in the well-heeled Angeleno community, there’s no reason the subject couldn’t yield gold if handled well (cf. Kaufman’s screenplay for Adaptation). But though it has its moments of cleverness and charm, Ruby Sparks ultimately remains too nice, too eager to please. You find yourself wanting to go through Kazan’s script with a red pen and indicate all the places where she could have let herself get darker, weirder, and braver.
When we first meet Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) he’s preparing to attend an event in honor of the 10th anniversary of the publication of his first novel—a critical and commercial smash that he miraculously produced at the age of 19. Now, at 29, Calvin is depressed, isolated, and hopelessly blocked. He has yet to finish his second book, and barely has any friends, let alone a girlfriend; only his brother Harry (Chris Messina) will voluntarily spend time with him.
After a dream about meeting a beautiful girl in a park, Calvin wakes up mysteriously inspired: He races to his typewriter (yes, a typewriter in 2012—he lives in Los Feliz, OK?) to start a new book about a girl named Ruby Sparks—a fictional creation with whom, as he gushes to his shrink (Elliott Gould), he feels like he’s falling in love.
Little by little, Calvin realizes that his writing has conjured Ruby into flesh-and-blood existence. At first it’s just a woman’s razor in his shaving cabinet or a bra behind the couch cushions, but then one day, impossibly, there she is living in his apartment, seemingly convinced that they’ve been cohabiting happily for some time. After confirming that other people can see Ruby as well, Calvin introduces her to his family and settles into a blissful domestic life with the girl of his dreams–though for fear of somehow spoiling this too-good-to-be-true setup, he abandons his book altogether. Ruby becomes a muse in reverse; instead of appearing in order to make him write, she appears because he writes, then brings his work to a halt.
After a while, the balance between reality and fiction goes wonky. Calvin experiments with tweaking Ruby’s behavior on the page, to disastrous results: A sentence written to keep her from leaving him turns her into a clingy, weepy barnacle. Another, intended to restore her joy in life, turns her into a giggling airhead. Gradually Calvin realizes that the woman he lives with has no real agency at all: She’s his puppet, and she has no idea who’s pulling the strings.
As Filmspotting’s Josh Larsen observes, this could have been the setup for a great psychological horror film, exploring the idea of romantic love as invasion, as brainwashing, as narcissistic delusion. But, though Ruby Sparks does feature one freaky mind-control scene near the end, the film generally casts its lot on the romantic side. It’s difficult to root for Calvin and Ruby to work out their differences, given the abundant implications that Calvin may be too disturbed to hang on to any girlfriend, even a fictional one. And since the rules of the movie’s fantasy universe remain fuzzy—we never learn why Ruby manifested off the page or what magic, if any, would suffice to make her into a real person—it’s hard to invest much in the development of her character, though Kazan plays her comically broad mood swings with quick-witted charm.
Ruby Sparks has a curiously muffled, muted feeling throughout, as if it wants to push into darker territory but doesn’t quite dare thwart the conventions of romantic comedy. It’s never as scary or as funny as you want it to be. Chris Messina gets a few laughs as Calvin’s pragmatic brother, and Annette Bening brings a gun to a knife fight in a tiny cameo as their artsy hippie mom, but Steve Coogan is wasted as a horndog literary scenester (a role that, given some room to improvise, he could have shone in).
As for Paul Dano, I’m aware there’s a groundswell of anti- Dano sentiment out there, but I can’t get on the bandwagon. He hasn’t found a great role since he played the holy-rolling teen preacher in There Will Be Blood, but at least Dano isn’t like any other young male actor out there right now. His pale face, lanky body, and austere manner make him well-suited for playing loners, cranks, and zealots, and I appreciate that he doesn’t try to make his characters too endearing. I found Dano moving as the emotionally fragile control freak Calvin, who’s oblivious to the everyday needs of others even as he cravenly seeks their recognition—he’s a hard-to-watch embodiment of every writer’s worst fears of how awful we actually are. But without giving anything away, I can say that the film’s tidy denouement lets Calvin off the hook too quickly for his often troubling behavior, and tries to strike a playfully romantic note that sits uneasily with what’s come before. Both writing and love are a lot harder to do well than the ending of Ruby Sparks would have us believe. So is making a movie about them.