Zoe Kazan knows a little something about creative types. Her mother, Robin Swicord, cowrote the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Her father, Nicholas Kazan, authored the script for Reversal of Fortune. Her grandfather, Elia Kazan, directed On the Waterfront. If her debut screenplay is any indication, the 28 year old is going to be a contender.
A double threat, in fact, because she’s a promising actress, as well. She plays the title role in Ruby Sparks, a romantic comedy about creative types. Real-life paramour Paul Dano (is there an actor you associate less with the term?) costars as Calvin Weir-Fields, an introverted Los Angeles writer whose first novel made him a star at 19 and whose second is now 10 years overdue.
His writer’s block is so bad that he sees a shrink (Elliott Gould) for help. In one session, Calvin describes a beautiful woman who appeared in one of his dreams. In an effort to get the literary juices flowing, the old guy suggests he write a page about her. The exercise proves unexpectedly productive.
One morning shortly thereafter, Calvin awakens to find the woman of his dreams — whom he’s named Ruby Sparks — whipping up breakfast in his kitchen. He assumes he’s going crazy. That she’s a pleasant hallucination. So he leaves a message for his psychiatrist and departs for a date with a fan. His world is turned upside down when Ruby presents herself at the café and demands an explanation. Far from embarrassed, Calvin is thrilled by the fracas. The possibility that other people can see Ruby hasn’t occurred to him.
As written by Kazan, the girlfriend written and miraculously brought to life by Calvin is anything but sketchy. She’s a fully conscious being with dimension, depth and history. She’s a painter. Her heroes are Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She likes zombie movies and is in love with Calvin. This makes sense in the film’s context, of course. She’s his fantasy made flesh, everything he ever wished for in a woman.
For a while they fulfill one another. Both Ruby and Calvin have the time of their lives — of course, she doesn’t have much experience with which to compare any of this. And there’s the rub: From the moment she’s made real, Ruby has real feelings and real thoughts of her own. It isn’t long before she develops interests in the world beyond the self-contained universe of her insecure creator.
This puts Calvin in the uncomfortable position familiar to many a god. Does he write the path he’d prefer for Ruby, or does he grant her free will? Consider where the movie might have gone if it were the work of, say, one of Judd Apatow’s followers. Hmm, young guy can make cute girl do anything he wants simply by typing. Where do you think Seth Rogen/Adam Sandler/pre-Muppets Jason Segel would’ve taken a premise like that? Kazan doesn’t just keep things clean; she keeps them buoyant and thoughtful. Not bad for an exercise in magic realism that’s equal parts Stranger Than Fiction and Weird Science.
Did I mention Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed the movie? It’s their first since the 2006 Oscar winner Little Miss Sunshine. Not that you’d guess in a million years if the ads and trailer hadn’t announced that fact in bold caps. Aside from being quirky and good hearted, Ruby Sparks bears zero resemblance to the earlier film. It’s Kazan’s show all the way. Dayton and Faris clearly understand their job is to step back, point the cameras in the right direction and suggest the occasional clever touch.
Which they do, with style. Bonus points for the sequence in which Calvin tests his power by typing that Ruby is fluent in French, she instantly switches to that language, and we cut to the couple dancing at a club to the ecstatically blasting strains of “Ça plane pour moi.” A scene like that spells meta-rom-com fun in any language.