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Ruby Sparks

(2012) *** 1/2 R
104 min. Fox Searchlight. Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina, Antonio Banderas, Alia Shawkat.

/content/films/4382/1.jpgMale fantasies have, for centuries, complicated women’s real lives through imposed and self-imposed expectations. Dealing with “the Pygmalion myth” hardly seems like the stuff of a date-night romantic comedy, but Ruby Sparks isn’t interested in perpetuating fantasies so much as challenging them. Ruby Sparks is the brainchild of Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay and plays the title role…of a brainchild. Ruby is the perfect woman for young, frustrated novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano, Kazan’s real-life beau): he knows this because he wrote her, tapped her out on his manual typewriter as a therapeutic exercise meant to break through his writer’s block.

Conjured up with writerly detail—she’s “twenty-six years old, raised in Dayton, Ohio…because it’s romantic”—Ruby literally comes to life, freaking out the already thoroughly neurotic Calvin. Once Calvin (like the audience) takes the magical-realist leap and accepts that Ruby isn’t going anywhere, he starts enjoying life with the girl of his dreams.

Prompted by his brother Harry (Chris Messina), Calvin proves Ruby is his creation by typing out instant alterations to his girlfriend, then vows never to do so again. But can he avoid the temptation? Though Ruby was made to spec, she’s now a real girl in the real world, reactive and subject to every influence and, of course, capable of growth and, perhaps, discovering Calvin leaves something to be desired as a boyfriend.

The sophomore feature from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks makes an entertaining admonishment for anyone navigating the tricky terrain between initial attraction and a lasting relationship, a lesson in seeing the real person behind the exterior that attracts us (as a literary celebrity, Calvin has ironically suffered the same problem he inflicts on Ruby; he says of his fangirls, “They’re not interested in me. They’re interested in some idea of me”).

Just as much, Kazan’s fable stands as a rebuke to a male-dominant literary tradition adopted by Hollywood: of attractive fantasy women useful only as far as they serve to define male characters. As a young female actor, Kazan knows what it’s like to be subject to boyfriends who don’t see the real her and writers disinterested in real women; she’s also smart enough to see the connection, how culture conjures fantasies that damage the sustainability of mutual understanding between men and women.

Don’t get me wrong: Ruby Sparks isn’t as heady as it sounds. There’s plenty of quirky humor (of sex with Ruby, Harry hilariously speculates, “Wouldn’t that be like incest? Or mindcest?”). Dayton and Faris also get serious comic mileage from Calvin’s life-loving mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas), joyous contrasts to Calvin’s fretfulness.

But Ruby Sparks proves it’s something special by being unafraid to follow its premise to a dark place, the dream turning into a nightmare. In a way, there’s as much Frankenstein to the story as there is The Purple Rose of Cairo. Calvin reaches a crossroads: will he monstrously abuse his power over Ruby, or love her enough to free her from his control? In a time of mind-numbing rom coms, Ruby Sparks uses fantasy to get real about modern romance.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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