Blocked bestseller Calvin (Paul Dano) dreams of a girl named Ruby (Zoe Kazan), and when he writes about her, she comes to life, exactly as he described her. But having literally met the girl of his dreams, how long before he tires of the quirks and foibles he created, and sets out to reinvent her?
It’s not uncommon for struggling actors to write a screenplay giving themselves a plum role, but the results are rarely as successful as this startlingly assured first feature script by actress Zoe Kazan, brought winningly to life by the directors of Little Miss Sunshine. It’s as though ‘70s-era Woody Allen wrote a feature-length adaptation of the Twilight Zone episode “A World of his Own”.
Although Dano is few people’s idea of a romantic lead, he is well cast as Calvin, a neurotic intellectual who topped the New York Times bestseller list at the age of 19, and has been struggling with the literary equivalent of Difficult Second Album Syndrome ever since. Given a therapeutic writing assignment by his analyst (Elliot Gould), Calvin writes about a girl he has dreamed of meeting, only to find her living in his apartment, calling herself his girlfriend, and inviting him to all-night zombie movie marathons.
After a highly enjoyable bit of business in which Calvin and his brother (Chris Messina) attempt to find out whether this figment of his imagination is really real, Calvin introduces Ruby to the other people in his life: his agent (a particularly louche Steve Coogan), his hippie mom (Annette Bening) and driftwood-sculptor stepdad (Antonio Banderas). At this point, the film slides smoothly into more familiar rom-com territory, albeit loaded with metaphor about our constant need to modify the people we fall in love with – a tendency best encapsulated in the title of the hit Broadway musical “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”
The romantic possibilities of the fictional-character-comes-to-life trope were recently explored in Stranger Than Fiction. But where Marc Forster’s film ultimately fizzled, Ruby Sparks has a payoff worthy of its set-up, even if it wraps up a little too neatly – and sweetly. It’s a pity, too, that when the story takes a turn for the twisted, Kazan pulls her punches, coyly loading the premise’s darker possibilities into a single scene. Such creative choices, however, can only enhance the commercial prospects of what may be the sharpest and funniest indie romance since (500) Days of Summer.
Six years after Little Miss Sunshine, Dayton and Faris deliver a comedy that sparkles with wit and substance. But from the script to her portrayal of the title character she, ahem, dreamed up, Ruby Sparks belongs to Zoe Kazan, who joins Sarah Polley and Brit Marling in the rarified ranks of actress/screenwriter double-threats. ★★★★