Ruby Sparks

This charming and inventive L.A. romance -- the second feature from the directors of "Little Miss Sunshine" -- makes for perfect summer blockbuster counterprogamming.

A beguiling romantic fantasy about the creative process and its potential to quite literally take on a life of its own, Ruby Sparks performs an imaginative high-wire act with finesse and charm. It's perhaps no coincidence that the long-awaited second feature from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine centers on a novelist suffering from writer's block, but the film itself reveals no sense of artistic stasis, proving vital and responsive to the nervy improbabilities of co-star Zoe Kazan's original screenplay. It's unlikely that commercial lightning will strike twice for Fox Searchlight to the same degree it did after the distributor picked up Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' debut six years ago, but the genuinely romantic core and fantastical Harvey-like element suggest real box-office potential to be tapped equally among young men and women.

Inspired by the Greek myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with one of his creations only to see it come to life, Kazan, a prolific playwright whose first produced script this is, imagines a situation in which a novelist's character appears before his eyes and behaves exactly as he writes her. He finds himself to be the ultimate puppetmaster, not only on the page but in real life. It's easy to picture a raunchy variation on this idea in the hands of someone like Adam Sandler or Judd Apatow. Fortunately, the filmmakers here have something less obvious and more heartfelt in mind, using the far-fetched premise to play with ethical ideas.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, who became a literary sensation at 19 and now, a decade later, finds the well dry. But not for the first time, all it takes for a man to be inspired is the right woman, in this case Ruby (Kazan), an offbeat redhead with luminous blue eyes whom Calvin meets in a park. Immediately, the words start to flow again as he works on his Olympic portable. Suddenly, however, she materializes in his apartment, flesh and blood before his eyes.

The most conventional scenes, in which Calvin has his brother Harry (Chris Messina) over to convince him that Ruby's for real, also are among the funniest. It's Harry who challenges Calvin to write something to see if Ruby follows suit. When, just short of the story's halfway point, Calvin finally accepts the reality of the power he has over his dream girl, he vows, "I'll never write about her again."

Having removed the leash to allow the romance to proceed on an equitable footing, Calvin reluctantly drives Ruby up the coast to Big Sur to meet his mother (Annette Bening), a radiant latter-day hippie who lives in a lushly overgrown Eden with her extravagantly friendly artist lover (Antonio Banderas). Once they're back home, and with Calvin no longer writing, Ruby develops an independent streak, wanting more space and time apart. Calvin responds by returning to the keyboard to manipulate her back into his arms, and further abrupt personality shifts and relationship imbalances follow.

It's an intimate, tightly focused tale that's been handled with impressive rigor but not too insistent a touch by Dayton and Faris. The fleet filmmaking style, which briskly moves things along but never feels manipulative or invasive, is invigorating. Long active in music videos, the directors also have summoned up a most distinctive soundtrack rooted in Nick Urata's unusually original score.

A couple in real life, Dano and Kazan individually and together project what is often called offbeat appeal. Dano registers many different temperatures of doubt, frustration, inspiration, love and creativity, and Kazan injects earthy life into a fantasy character, capping extremes of behavior in a wild scene in which Calvin types conflicting commands.

Release date: Wednesday, July 25 (Fox Searchlight)
Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris Rated R, 104 minutes

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