Ruby Sparks | B+
The "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," a screen archetype currently personified by Zooey Deschanel — but stretching back through Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton, Audrey Hepburn etc. — gets a clever tweaking as Zoe Kazan takes on as Ruby Sparks' title character. True to genre tropes, Kazan's whip-smart interpretation of the fire-haired charmer embodies all the wishes, dreams, anxieties and sweaty fantasies of her buttoned-up male protagonist, and through the force of her unbridled joy and mystic femininity, draws him out of his drab shell. The difference here is that Ruby is actually a literary conceit turned flesh and blood purely thorough the imagination of her lover-creator Calvin, a mopey young novelist played by Kazan's real-life boyfriend Paul Dano.
Withdrawn Cal is caught in a prolonged sophomore swoon, unable to muster an answer to the remarkable success of his debut book of 10 years earlier. His gently understanding therapist (the always-welcome Elliot Gould) suggests writing about the mystery girl who's been bouncing around Cal's dreams, and in short order, she's bouncing around his kitchen, in the flesh, cheerfully whisking eggs.
Ruby is everything Cal expected; a bubbly, unpredictable romantic from Dayton, Ohio, exactly as written. The fact that everyone else can now see her only mildly eases his frazzled nerves. Calvin freaks out, but his smarmy brother (Chris Messina) immediately grasps the upside of this bizarre, fantasy scenario; a fully customizable girlfriend that can be edited with a whim and a few keystrokes. And of course all would be wonderful, if only his delightful creation would stick to the script.
This is the kind of high-concept whimsy trafficked in by Woody Allen, though thankfully free of Dixieland jazz, monochrome title cards or kvetching about Russian literature. Instead of gloomy Manhattan we get the sun-soaked L.A. hipster oasis Los Feliz, and married directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) capture the city's funky vibrancy, away from the stereotyped freeways and strip malls. That quirky cool spirit fills every frame of Ruby Sparks, and infuses it with a humor and a persuasive warmth, even when the movie starts to feel like an overly precocious Charlie Kauffman knock-off.
If you detect the musty whiff of sexism in the premise, bear in mind that Kazan wrote the script and, as co-producer, cannily casts herself in the part, which is by nature an acting showcase. Every time Cal touches his typewriter, Ruby's mood shifts, from silly to clingy to sensual to bitter, with a host of shades in between. While she rides this emotional roller coaster, Dano works his trademark tones of intense, melancholic paranoia, although there is an inherent sweetness to him. The unmistakable intimacy between the couple helps soften the film's darker, creepier moments.
The scary implication, that relationships can be destructive to identity, is tempered by the understanding that the things we cannot control about our partners are usually the things we love about them the most.
Opens Friday, Aug. 3, at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Avenue, Birmingham; 248-644-3456) and expands to other theaters next week.
Cutline: Real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan play characters, one of whom is imaginary ... so confusing.
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