If you’re an actor looking for work, it helps to have a girlfriend who is a writer. So Paul Dano, whose dour, limburger face is matched only by a charisma that is the screen equivalent of road kill, is a lucky fellow. His roommate and offscreen squeeze, Zoe Kazan, has provided them both with the screenplay to Ruby Sparks, an engaging if lightweight romcom directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the team that hit pay dirt with Little Miss Sunshine. This one passes the time pleasantly enough, but history isn’t likely to repeat itself. The script is breezy, but neither of the two leads have the heft or charm to carry an entire feature-length film—separately or together. I kept wondering, while glancing at my watch, what it would have been like with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, or James Wolk and anybody.
The morose Mr. Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a shy novelist in horn-rimmed glasses who wrote a best-seller at 19 but now suffers painfully from writer’s block. Well, naturally; it’s ten years later, and he doesn’t even own a computer. So emotionally underdeveloped that his shrink (welcome back, Elliot Gould) gives him a fuzzy stuffed toy to cuddle with on the couch while he’s being analyzed, Calvin is awkward, socially inept and unable to get laid. So along comes a girl he calls Ruby Sparks, who falls in love with him faster than he can speed-dial his own cell phone. There’s just one snag. She exists only in his imagination. What happens next comes from the filing cabinet reserved for discarded Twilight Zone episodes. She moves into his house, his bed and his kitchen, invading every space. The only person he can confide in is his sympathetic brother, Harry (handsome Chris Messina, who looks nothing like Paul Dano). “She’s like Harvey, except she’s not a giant rabbit!” Ruby (played by the wide-eyed Ms. Kazan, who neglected to write herself the best part) can eat, sleep, walk, talk, make love and stage domestic arguments, and Calvin adjusts to his first affair with adoring acceptance. But after a corny, contrived falling-in-love montage of zombie movies, penny arcades and video games, Ruby starts materializing. Other people start seeing her, too, including the doubting Harry. But instead of fulfillment, she starts challenging Calvin’s well-ordered male supremacy. On a weekend in Big Sur with his bohemian mother (a criminally wasted Annette Bening) and her younger lover (ditto Antonio Banderas), Ruby wins everyone over and becomes the opinionated, fun-loving life of the party. Back in Los Angeles, she gets bored, begins spending the night at her old apartment, partying with a new group of friends and seeking her own independence. This is not what Calvin had in mind, so he starts re-writing his character. Ruby is transformed, according to the sentence he just typed, and returns, clinging to him more than ever. Her actions, thoughts, opinions and moods are all controlled. When she feels sad, he writes her happy. If Ruby starts to leave, he writes her needy and dependent. All of which gives Ms. Kazan a wide spectrum of moods to play. Who wouldn’t crave a relationship you can modify just by writing a new paragraph? But alas, what happens when your creation develops a mind of its own?
Ms. Kazan, granddaughter of the great Elia Kazan, oddly shows little cinematic technique as an actress, but as a writer she has penned a whimsical view of male self-absorption and obsessive egotism as droll as it is shrewd. It’s still a movie with no payoff (even the epilogue smacks of refried Rod Serling), and the fanciful conceit goes nowhere fast. Ruby is like Ryan Gosling’s inflated sex toy in Lars and the Real Girl. The difference is that she can walk the dog, wax the floor and scramble eggs. But she eventually grows just as tiresome as the puppet who wants to be Pinocchio. The movie is sweet, but it’s a lollipop of whimsy. Lick it and it’s gone.
Running Time 104 minutes
Written by Zoe Kazan
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Annette Bening