"Ruby Sparks" is the great romantic gem of the summer, a diamond in the rough that bends genres, tickles the fancy and trips up expectations.
Writer and co-star Zoe Kazan, working with the directors of "Little Miss Sunshine," concocts a romantic fantasy told from a male point of view but with a distinctly feminine sensibility. The adorably odd Kazan presents herself as the dream date of studiously odd Paul Dano. And odd-on-odd works in a tale you could sum up on a T-shirt.
"If you love something, set it free."
Dano is Calvin, a young writer who found great fame as an even younger writer. And that curse of what his rival-mentor (Steve Coogan, hilarious) calls his "premature success" has created an epic case of writer's block.
Calvin lives with his dog Scottie in an expensive hillside Hollywood home. He resents the word "genius," which is used in his presence far too often. He can't get over the writer- girlfriend who ditched him, and can't find another love because he attracts only women who "read my book in high school" and think they know him through his characters.
He finds love only in his dreams.
"Women are different, up close," he mutters.
So his shrink (Elliott Gould, on the mark) gives him an assignment.
Write something, not for publication, about his dream date. Calvin does. And darned if she doesn't come magically to life.
Ruby Sparks is a quirky waif, flirtatious and seriously into Calvin.
She may tell him "You're soooo not my type," but plainly she is. He invented her.
A word about Dano's reactions to this supernatural thing that's happened to him. His Calvin is slack-jawed, speechless, manic and paranoid that anyone should find out that he's literally seeing and sleeping with what must be an illusion. Only she isn't.
Chris Messina looks nothing like Dano but is well-cast as his brother, and his reactions to this amazing thing that's happened to Calvin are even more out there a look of flushed, red-faced delight sweeps across his face. He lets us see that his character sees the possibilities.
A woman, who like all women, is a "mystery" to men, can be written and rewritten into a form that is pliable, flexible, consenting to Calvin's every whim or desire.
Kazan plays the heck out of Ruby, especially in scenes in which Calvin and his brother try the "rewrite her" theory out bursting into French, instantly morphing into clingy, libidinous or infuriatingly upbeat, the very picture of "effervescent joy," that Calvin has just typed onto the page.
But where the movie flirts with greatness is what happens in between the pages. Ruby, written as real, develops real personality traits that may push her away from Calvin, that may be more than this squirrelly scribe can handle.
"Ruby Sparks" comes close to cloying, at times, and hits a few dead stretches in between assorted romantic comedy clichés (courtship montages set to music). But Valerie Faris and Jonathan Drayton, the directors, keep the movie on its feet, finding teeny laughs in between the side-splitting moments.
As Calvin discovers how complicated even a woman he's written just for himself can be, the operatic aria "La donna e mobile" wafts through the score.
"Woman is fickle," Verdi composed. Calvin is just the latest to figure that out.
Three 1/2 Stars (out of four)
Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Rated R (language including some sexual references, and for some drug use)