‘Ruby Sparks” is a package wrapped in multiple ribbons. It’s the first movie Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have directed since “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s the first screenplay by actress Zoe Kazan. It pairs Kazan with Paul Dano, her real-life romantic partner. Granted, it’s not exactly the first retelling of the Pygmalion story. This go-round it’s a writer (Dano) who has his imaginary creation (Kazan) become human. But the film is usually so fresh and winning it feels in no way derivative.
Dano’s character, Calvin, is suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. He had an enormous success 10 years before with what sounds like a suspiciously Salingeresque novel. “Girls only want to sleep with me because they read my book in high school,” he laments.
At 29, Calvin’s still waiting for lightning to strike again. He lives in a beautiful home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. He’s getting over a very bad breakup. If he were any more emotionally constipated he’d be writing on parchment. No, he’d be parchment. As it is, he writes with a typewriter – a manual, no less. Bad enough that he’s blocked as a writer. He’s locked as a human being.
Calvin starts dreaming about a young woman. His shrink (a charming Elliott Gould) urges him to write about her. So he does and, voila, she shows up in his life. Kazan is effortlessly, and shrewdly, effervescent as Ruby. What might otherwise have seemed like a tired conceit really does (you’ll forgive the expression) come to life. Kazan isn’t beautiful. She’s not even pretty, at least not in any conventional way. But she’s enormously attractive, and the camera can’t get enough of that heart-shaped face and those bouncing bangs.
Things really come to life when Calvin and Ruby drive up to Big Sur to meet his hang-loose mother and stepfather. Who’d have thought Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas would make for such a match? (Who’d have thought it about Bening and Warren Beatty?) They pretty much steal the picture — and cry out for a spinoff sequel.
“Ruby Sparks” can have tonal problems. Chris Messina, as Calvin’s high-testosterone older brother, seems to have stepped in from another movie. Steve Coogan, as a novelist who can’t decide whether he’s mentoring Calvin or competing with him, definitely seems to have stepped in from another movie.
Much of the film is pure romantic comedy and a good one. Yet the filmmakers want it to be more. The movie gets progressively darker, as Calvin comes to appreciate just how complete is his control over the character he’s created. There are two serious missteps. At a literary party hosted by Coogan’s character, Calvin encounters his ex. It’s painful to watch, and not necessarily for the reasons Kazan intends. And a scene where Calvin’s manipulation of Ruby spins out of control is a showpiece for the two actors. Which is good. It has a kind of ferocity that’s both memorable and incongruous and throws the rest of the movie out of whack. Which is bad.
This demonic side of Calvin shown in this scene wouldn’t have looked out of place in the film featuring Dano’s best-known performance, “There Will Be Blood.” It also underscores just how precious Calvin can seem. It’s one thing to wear argyle socks. It’s quite another to name your dog after F. Scott Fitzgerald. At times, Dano seems to be auditioning for the lead in “The Wes Anderson Story.”
Calvin is a drip, and his drippiness keeps the movie from getting too cute. But he’s also too easy for Dano, who with his pinched face and almost-existential skinniness has the onscreen drip franchise all but locked up. It’s time for him to set aside scurvy young boys (at least once in a while). Some smart director, stage or film, should put a pillow around Dano’s middle and fake whiskers on his face and cast him as Falstaff. Now that would create some sparks, ruby or otherwise.