Starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan. Written by Zoe Kazan. Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. 14A. 104 min. Opens Aug. 3.
Ruby Sparks entertainingly splits the difference between Pygmalion and one of Woody Allen’s old New Yorker short stories. It’s the story of a man trying to remake a woman in his own image, with the catch being that he made her up in the first place. Languishing in a comfy San Fernando Valley depression 10 years after publishing an acclaimed debut novel, Calvin (Paul Dano) conjures up a mental picture of the titular zany, yet sexy redhead (played by Zoe Kazan) and puts it down on paper. When the girl actually materializes in his apartment, he thinks he’s lost his mind—until he realizes that other people can see her too.
Ruby Sparks is a film that’s trying to do several things at once. Both in her script and her performance, Kazan attempts to deconstruct the ubiquitous manic pixie dream girl archetype. She persuasively frames the sexually voracious Ruby as a projection of male desire—and then shows us what happens when that projection starts to develop desires of her own. Dano’s job, meanwhile, is to inhabit a character whose self-deprecation is bound up in narcissism so deep that he can only fall in love with a woman he literally invented. (He’s excellent, by the way: His watchful eyes and weak voice are perfect for a guy who can’t help living up to his outsider reputation). And, on top of all of these deeper, more trenchant concerns, Ruby Sparks has to function as a gently magic-realist romantic comedy where Calvin’s brother (Chris Messina) is ultimately nonplussed by the presence of a non-person.
Credit co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) for keeping these various moving parts working in harmony, even if the strain starts to show by the end. Ruby Sparks is a genuinely ambitious movie, and if its reach finally exceeds its grasp, that may be because the ideas and sensations it’s after are truly rare and elusive.