Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in 'Ruby Sparks' (Fox Searchlight)

Review: ‘Ruby Sparks’ is Smart, Funny, and Deeper Than You Might Think

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in 'Ruby Sparks' (Fox Searchlight)
Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in ‘Ruby Sparks’ (Fox Searchlight)

Almost as soon as Ruby Sparks gets underway, literary affectations begin cascading off the screen.

Late twenty-something Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is suffering from writer’s block. (Affectation #1.) As a teenager, he wrote a novel that became a massive best-seller — apparent because a decade later he lives in a gorgeous, airy, sunny home in the Hollywood hills — but the pressure to write an equally compelling second novel has stymied his creativity. (Affectation #2.) He’s stuck on an image, something to do with a mysterious film noir-ish femme fatale. (Affectation #3.) And so he sits in his writer’s room, despairing in front of his manual typewriter. (Affectation #4).

Then the mysterious woman, a dream girl whipped up from his imagination, makes an appearance in the real world, and all the affectations are reigned in, and gradually cast off, as we get down to the nitty-gritty of the characters.

Of course, the manic pixie dream girl who comes to life is an affectation, too, but in the screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks (played by Kazan) turns out to be a multi-layered woman, with a personality all her own, which is not always to Calvin’s liking.

It turns out that Calvin has control issues — not surprising, considering that the central conceit is a male fantasy — and, furthermore, is stuck in a groove that is not very flexible. When Calvin tries to change Ruby’s tune, he finds that she has her own groove too, which is not fully in harmony with his own.

It gets groovier from there.

The premise, dating back centuries to Greek mythology, is familiar, but the execution is smart, funny, and deeper than might be anticipated. Chris Messina plays Harry, Calvin’s brother, who has settled into marriage and wishes the same for his younger sibling. Harry doesn’t quite understand Calvin’s creative impulse. Calvin needs more than sympathy or encouragement, however; he needs someone who truly understands and can empathize with his artistic tendencies.

So the girlfriend of his dreams is someone who will support him and all his needs (emotional, physical, sexual), while displaying a modest personality that will, nonetheless, remain subservient at all times to his own desires. He believes he has somehow managed to conjure up his absolutely perfect mate. Thus, when Ruby begins to assert her individuality, and comes to realize that Calvin is either incapable or unwilling to “work” on their relationship, she seeks succor elsewhere.

Kazan’s screenplay thus draws upon a classical source and modernizes it with a present-day understanding of the biggest challenge to any relationship: figuring out the difference between wants and needs, and accommodating them to the best extent possible, with the goal of reaching a mutually satisfying balance.

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) directed, with a keen sense of comic timing and dramatic tension. Their visual style is expressed in refreshing moderation. Dano and Kazan make for unusual players in a traditional romantic comedy, but then again, Ruby Sparks is not terribly traditional, which makes their off-kilter sensibilities a good fit for the material.

In support, Messina provides a pleasant edge to his character, while Elliott Gould (as Calvin’s psychologist), Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas (as Calvin’s mother and her lover), and others in small roles (Steve Coogan, Alia Shawkat, Aasif Mandvi, Deborah Ann Woll) contribute good bits. Matthew Libatique, Darren Aronofsky’s longtime collaborator, did the excellent cinematography.

Ruby Sparks opens today at Landmark Magnolia and Cinemark West Plano. It will expand on August 10 to the following theaters: AMC Parks at Arlington, AMC Grapevine Mills, Cinemark Tinseltown Grapevine, Cinemark Legacy Plano, and Rave Northeast Mall.

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