Ruby Sparks: Film Review

JULY: "Ruby Sparks"

The team behind indie blockbuster "Little Miss Sunshine" returns to theaters with the Fox Searchlight specialty release "Ruby Sparks," which opens July 25 in a limited run -- nearly six years to the day after "Sunshine" did.

An inventive romantic fantasy that could sneak in as good late-July counterprogramming for audiences looking for a break from comics-inspired tentpoles.

The duo that brought us "Little Miss Sunshine" is back with an inventive romantic fantasy starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

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 Harvey-like fantastical element suggest real box-office potential to be tapped equally among young men and women.

VIDEO: 'Ruby Sparks' Trailer: 'Little Miss Sunshine' Directors Return With Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan Love Story

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 an L.A.-based novelist's character suddenly materializes 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; if he wants her to be loving and obedient, fluent in French or a great cook, she will be all that, whatever he wants.

In contemporary Hollywood, it's easy to imagine a single-mindedly 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 patently far-fetched premise to play with ethical ideas about the extent of any person's control over others and of dealing with an idle fantasy becoming reality.

Paul Dano plays brainy, bespectacled Calvin, who scored a literary sensation of nearly The Catcher in the Rye proportions at 19 and now, a decade later, finds the creative well stiflingly dry. When his agent and others try to reassure him that he's a genius, Calvin snaps, “Don't use that word,” while his shrink (Elliott Gould) gives him a one-page writing assignment in the hope of getting him out of his rut.

But, not for the first time, all it takes for a man to be inspired is the right woman, who in this case is Ruby (Kazan), an offbeat redhead with luminous blue eyes Calvin meets in a park. Immediately, the words start to flow again as he works on his Olympic portable. “It's almost like I'm writing to spend time with her,” he marvels as the pages begin to accumulate. Suddenly, however, she materializes in his apartment, his imaginary muse suddenly 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, are also 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). While Ruby, Harry and the latter's wife (Toni Trucks) embrace the hedonistic lifestyle, Calvin withdraws into himself. Once they're back home, and with Calvin no longer writing, Ruby develops an independent streak, wanting more space and time apart. After the depressed Calvin responds by returning to the keyboard to manipulate her back into his arms, she tilts to the opposite extreme and becomes a pathetically dependent wreck.

Further abrupt personality shifts and relationship imbalances follow, but when Kazan seems to have written herself into an inescapable corner, she manages with impressive dexterity to address the manifestly implausible nature of her creation on the way to a resolution that's sweet and, happily, doesn't feel like a cheat.

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, as are the exceptionally luminous images created by cinematographer Matthew Libatique; the palette is simultaneously soft and vivid, making wonderful use of light as well as the multiple architectural levels of Calvin's spare, modern apartment. 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. His large head and mop of hair atop a slim frame convincingly representing an egghead writer, Dano registers many different temperatures of doubt, frustration, inspiration, love and creativity. A sparkling personality shining through regardless of circumstances, Kazan injects earthy life into a fantasy character, capping her extremes of behavior in a wild scene in which Calvin rapidly types conflicting commands to which Ruby instantly responds.

Supporting performances are uniformly sharp, and the use of locations -- mostly in the Los Feliz and Hollywood area -- is excellent, lending the film a warm, lived-in feel.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (sneak preview)
Opens: Wednesday, July 25 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: Bona Fide
Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenwriter: Zoe Kazan
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Executive producers: Robert Graf, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Judy Becker
Costume designer: Nancy Steiner
Editor: Pamela Martin
Music: Nick Urata
Rated R, 104 minutes