'Ruby' Almost Sparks

'Little Miss Sunshine' duo go rom-com route for new film

By Chris Azzopardi

The idea of love with a make-believe mate isn't a novel concept. (Ryan Gosling, as an awkward loner, was all about his blow-up doll in "Lars and the Real Girl.") Except the concept of "Ruby Sparks" is a novel: Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is an author suffering from a bout of writer's block when, as part of an exercise suggested by his shrink, a character - a shiny red-head plucked out of a pixie-girl dream - comes to him. But not just on the page - in real life.

Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in his apartment one day, making eggs like it's not strange that she found her way from Calvin's clouded, crazy mind into his kitchen. It is strange, and Calvin's not the only one who thinks so - his brother, Harry (a hilarious Chris Messina), doesn't believe the absurdity of such a ridiculous scenario. Until he meets her.

Calvin and Ruby have that freewheeling, teenage love thing going, and then he realizes just how much power he has over her: the words he writes can alter their entire relationship. His brother is floored by this whole puppet-master dominance, suggesting he take full advantage of this - i.e. make her tits bigger - for "the sake of men everywhere."

He doesn't adjust her boob size, but Calvin doesn't let his super-writing go to waste. Too distant? Not peppy enough? A few key strokes and voila. And then it gets complicated. Calvin starts to recognize his abusive nature on Ruby, reeling into a crazed meltdown that's not typical rom-com territory. Self-deception, it turns out, has consequences.

After impressively filling small roles, most notably as the color-blind kid who took a vow of silence in "Little Miss Sunshine," Dano is the perfect Calvin with his scholarly look, precocious nature and the ability to alternate light comedy and dramatic darkness (he did the latter especially well in 2001's "L.I.E.," as a troubled teen in a relationship with a much older man). Empathetic to the core, Dano makes an otherwise hard-to-like egomaniac the very person we can all relate to - who doesn't want to control their own destiny?

It's the flipside of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Charlie Kaufman's brilliant film about a memory-zapping procedure that could wipe out any recollection of a relationship. If you could erase an ex, would you? "Ruby Sparks" works similarly - it's about making the memories before they even start. Much like Kate Winslet in Kaufman's film, Kazan plays the burst of fresh air, the woman who helps lift Calvin out of his mopey low. In her first major role, Kazan is instantly likable with a cool sassiness that breaks gender boundaries. She's not afraid to put up a fight when shit hits the fan.

The casting of Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin's hippie parents is shoehorned as simply a way to get veteran-actor cred. "Ruby Sparks" is too good for that sitcom-y kind of writing. But otherwise, the script, created by Kazan and under the direction of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the twosome also did "Little Miss Sunshine"), only makes light of some of the sillier possibilities (like the breast augmentation). What's really going on here is a poignantly metaphorical drama about love and all its imperfections. Now excuse me while I go write a novel about a gay guy who has Joseph Gordon-Levitt's dorky personality and Zac Efron's man-bod.

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