It's one of the most cherished legends of the American indie: A socially retarded ugly duck, despite making no effort to regulate his glaring emotional hangups, is discovered as a swan by a clearly out-of-his-league girl who loves him just the way he is. Buffalo '66 (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) are the best-known examples, but there are many also-rans, like the toxic Gigantic, starring Paul Dano.
It is appropriate, then, that Dano should star in Ruby Sparks, a loser love story that is also a moral-fable critique of the same. Dano plays Calvin, a one-hit novelist struggling through two dry spells. As his claim-to-fame tome has just come out in a tenth-anniversary edition, Calvin has writer's block, and meanwhile complains to his therapist (Elliott Gould) and brother (Chris Messina) of being unable to believe that any woman might want him for something other than his niche fame.
The shrink advises him to write himself an unconditional-love story, and Calvin proceeds to think up exactly the sort of preciously troubled, whimsical, impractical, thrift-store-chic, feasibly girlfriendable little kook — "Can't drive...doesn't own a computer...roots for the underdog" — giving her the adorable sobriquet of "Ruby Sparks" for good measure. It's almost a parody of the type, and as Ruby Sparks continues, it appears that the film is after exactly that.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Written by Zoe Kazan. Starring Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Elliott Gould and Chris Messina.
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Calvin's brother, who's married and has negotiated the post-honeymoon comedown, has harsh words when he reads Calvin's first-draft feminine ideal: "Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real." But then, in a burst of literary Weird Science, Ruby miraculously appears in the flesh, making breakfast one morning in Calvin's house. Calvin thinks he's finally having his crack-up but soon discovers that he isn't the only one who can see Ruby – and just like that, he's dating his own creation, who's cluttering up the house with her awful paintings.
Ruby is played by 28-year-old Zoe Kazan, who co-starred with Dano in Meek's Cutoff — they are co-producers here and apparently "romantically linked," as are co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). With her headlamp eyes and crimson bow of a mouth, Kazan has a sort of faintly retro prettiness. But Kazan also wrote the screenplay, which begs interpretation as a frustrated actress's commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women.
At first, all is harmonious between Calvin and Ruby. But when inevitable incompatibilities arise, Calvin violates his own rule by returning to the typewriter, where he discovers that he can "edit" his creation, inadvertently rewriting her as codependent, dippily elated and bipolar — license for Kazan to run amok, with a winning lack of self-consciousness.
Dayton and Faris's direction is never more than workmanlike, and they tend to buckle at high-pressure moments, interpreting bliss through French-pop-soundtracked "fun" montages, or Calvin and Ruby's big confrontation through a squall of distracting effects. The script can also be charged with a number of missed opportunities and withholdings: One wishes that Ruby Sparks was not so demure in matters of sex, for certainly there are laughs to be had here. The treatment of the writer's life is shallow, references never going further afield than Fitzgerald and Salinger. And there is, finally, no single moment that lets the air out of romantic wish fulfillment.