The true problem with this dramatic comedy, written by actress Zoe Kazan and directed by the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), is that its device - basically, a slumping writer (Paul Dano) magically creates a new girlfriend by typing out his dreams into a typewriter - is a little too familiar. Remember Marc Forster's excellent Stranger Than Fiction? Same set-up here, right down to the buttoned-up typewriter cliché, but with a different framework. That said, the fantasy element in Ruby Sparks doesn't apologize for itself as Stranger did, and thus reminds more of the movie magic 80s kids like myself, Kazan and co-star/real-life-beau Paul Dano saw on the screen in several Tom Hanks films (Big, Splash, etc.). Ruby also apes the whimsycool mood of (500) Days of Summer, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy element of Splash and, kinda sorta, the all-too-perfect ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The too-obvious weird science of Kazan's Ruby Sparks script aside, I found the film to be perfectly enjoyable with a handful of notably well defined characters. Sure, the writing is highly derivative and almost too-textbook-for-comfort, but the story plays out quite well. Kazan, a Yale grad who happens to be the granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan, proves herself to be a cool, smart writer with a solid knack for pacing and clear narrative. While piecing together a mostly-straight-faced fantasy film like Ruby Sparks does seem quite textbook, any spinner of long form original stories will tell you that writing with a device is an awfully tricky duty. You have to cover all your bases more than you usually would, leaving no holes for the smart audience to gripe about and, inevitably, use to drag down the work (talking to you, M. Night). Kazan, despite lacking in originality and authentic dialog in her writing, sells this story with a surprisingly polished touch.
The highlight of the film, for me, was actor Paul Dano, who has been sitting on the edge of greatness for the better part of the last decade. That the role of the film's protagonist, genius writer Calvin Weir-Fields, was written specifically for Dano is not an opportunity squandered. The actor moves through scenes with humor and grace, neither going too far nor playing to the easy cliché in front of him (skinny, smart writer who can't figure out women). His is a nuanced performance that I believe will resonate with the 18-30 crowd in a way none of his past performances have. As much as I want to picture Jesse Eisenberg in the role (and I'm sure the studio wanted Michael Cera), I can't. This is Paul Dano's character.
Another highlight is the cinematography of Matthew Libatique, best known for his work with Jon Favreau, Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee. While Ruby isn't the kind of film that wins cinematography statues, it's certainly a beautiful one in subtle, graceful, technically perfect ways. (And don't be surprised if, over the next decade or so, Libatique does take home some golden bookends.)
The biggest topic on conversation here, unlike most films, is not the work of the directors. Faris and Dayton strike me as indie tourists whose work comes off as safe and sound - too hip to be sell-outs and too schooled to be inventive. The headline, of course, is Kazan, an oddly cute actress who has been on the cusp of B- or even A-level fame since 2007's Fracture. Thus far Kazan has picked - aside from Nia Vardalos' dreadful I Hate Valentine's Day - all respectable projects. And she's good here as an exaggerated fantasy character that she wrote for herself. Not great, as you'd hope an actor would be in such a situation, but good enough that the movie - which hinges on her dream girl performance - doesn't fail. But, truth be told, I can't help but daydream of Ruby Sparks with a more charming, dreamy actress like Zooey Deschanel or even Kirsten Dunst. Both have an ability to set fire to the screen in a way we've not yet seen from Kazan, who seems better off in more brooding roles, like the one she played so well in The Exploding Girl.
All complaints and shortcomings aside, Ruby Sparks is a fine film full of hearty laughs. A good time at the movies that wraps up properly and entertains in a way that's both slightly hip and widely accessible. It's probably not the "surprise hit" that the folks at Fox Searchlight designed it to be, but the movie should do well enough, giving both Kazan's and Dano's careers needed lifts into commercial hipdom. Here's to hoping that when Kazan next picks up the pen, she takes better care to flesh out the psychological depths of her characters and, ya know, disguises her influences a far better.
Read more of my music- and film-focused writing at ZeCatalist.com