What if you could create your concept of the perfect person for yourself? That question inspired Ruby Sparks, written by and starring Zoe Kazan (Revolutionary Road) as the title character and muse of published author Calvin Weir-Fields, played by Kazan’s boyfriend, Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood). The bittersweet comedic touch that co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris applied to Little Miss Sunshine works even better with Kazan’s screenplay, which barely misses a beat in taking on a tremendously tricky premise. How, after all, do you end a movie about an imaginary character manifested by a protagonist’s neuroses?
Calvin, suffering from writer’s block in his minimalist Hollywood Hills home, literally writes her to life after his well-meaning brother Harry (Chris Messina) chastises him for not taking more social advantage of the notoriety provided by his best-selling novel. Calvin wants someone to love him for who he is, not for their idea of him as a literary figure. He complains to his therapist (Elliot Gould), but finally, in his desperation, sits at his manual typewriter and begins to sketch out a new character.
Ruby’s first appearance makes Calvin think he’s losing his mind. Kazan and the co-directors toy with us a little bit before Calvin brings Ruby out in public, allowing their relationship to develop and Ruby/Kazan to shine as the ultimate indie it-girl. Kazan plays her with just enough restraint to keep Ruby’s bubbly persona from becoming annoying. Her oval face and huge eyes, emphasized with a curtain of auburn bangs, shine with the luminescence of a full moon in a clear sky. She’s very artistic and a great cook, but even Calvin has a hard time believing she’s real and follows through on a date with a groupie (Alia Shawkat).
This does not sit well with Ruby, and at this point Kazan had to make some hard decisions about where to take the narrative. Ruby is not a six-foot tall rabbit friend of an alcoholic, à la Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey. Her characteristics may be Calvin’s creation, but he can’t control her once he’s away from his typewriter. He can, however, keep coming back to write the story of Calvin and Ruby, which he does once he gets separated from her at a party and she makes a decision Calvin doesn’t abide by.
Kazan, granddaughter of director Elia and a veteran theater actress, explores some delicate themes that could have easily caused the storyline to go awry. A writer writing about a writer can lead to themes that don’t resonate with general audiences, although control issues and letting relationships slip by while waiting for ideal love are hardly unique to the writing life. Calvin has cut himself off emotionally, though, symbolized by his avoidance of Internet-connected computers. Ruby is both Calvin’s salvation and self-serving creation, but she’s way too lifelike for Kazan not to fashion a credible happy ending to cap off one of the cleverest romantic comedies in ages.
Ruby Sparks Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, rated R, 104 mins