It has been six years since Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris sat in the director’s chair, but the “Little Miss Sunshine” helmers have made a magnificent return with “Ruby Sparks,” one of the most intelligent and heartfelt comedies this year. It is theatrical in its over-the-top humor and deeply affecting in its more somber moments, but is sure to make you leave the theater smiling.
“There Will Be Blood” and “Being Flynn”-alum Paul Dano plays Calvin: A young author who hit best-selling success at an early age but struggles to find inspiration for new material. Having had only one real girlfriend, Calvin grapples with intimacy and feels largely inadequate around everybody but his dog. On a suggestion from his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins writing about his dream girl, Ruby Tiffany Sparks (who we later learn loathes her middle name). For reasons unbeknownst to anyone, Ruby unexpectedly springs to life and leaves Calvin questioning love and his own sanity.
The premise has potential to wander into predictable territory and the advertisements tout the film as a romantic comedy in the vein of Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer.” Instead, “Ruby” is a unique creation that is anchored by captivating performances from Dano and Zoe Kazan, who not only plays Ruby but also wrote the film.
Dano has matured greatly since his defiant, teenage days of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and gives a layered, believable performance as Calvin. His character is very put together: Not the typical slob that writers are often portrayed as, but too consumed in his own ego to let anybody else in. Kazan also defies the “manic-pixie girl” stereotype embodied by the likes of Zooey Deschanel and creates a multi-faceted, hipster dream girl that is alluring, quirky, inquisitive and undeniably gorgeous. Their strong chemistry makes the movie’s concept work and is no doubt helped by the fact that they are an off-screen couple, too.
Set to an effervescent soundtrack by Devotchka’s Nick Urata, “Ruby” is a breathtaking movie to hear and see. It begins with a dream sequence featuring Ruby’s silhouette bathed in lustrous oranges, reds, and golds of the sun. One of the greatest images occurs when Calvin first meets Ruby: Wearing neutral-colored clothes in his primarily white house, Calvin immediately contrasts with Ruby’s eye-popping purple dress and bright-blue stockings.
There are some lines of dialogue and scenes that feel manufactured (namely a pool sequence with Ruby and Calvin, and a visit to his parents’ house), but they are easily excused in a film that has many fantastical elements. There are some particularly powerful and sometimes frightening components of the movie, especially as Calvin begins to rewrite Ruby in fear that she will drift away. While this is amusing at first, it quickly becomes unsettling to witness and makes the audience feel sorry for them both.
The story’s heart stems from the idea of accepting people despite their flaws, especially when navigating the uncertain avenues of young love. Kazan is quick to note when speaking about the film that there are no characters written as filler and she was absolutely correct in saying so: Everybody has a distinct purpose and helps fill in the lines of the greater picture Kazan has created, which is often a rare quality in many motion pictures today.
“Ruby Sparks” is everything you can hope for in a comedy and a stunning first-feature writing debut for Kazan. Women like Kazan and Lena Dunham (HBO’s “Girls”) show promise for the future of cinema, and will hopefully blaze the trail for more young writers to get their original material produced.
After all, if “Ruby” is one thing, she’s original, and is guaranteed to capture you under her spell.