Screenwriter Zoe Kazan plays the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this slumpy sophomore effort from the “Little Miss Sunshine” directors
To be fair, “Ruby Sparks” is probably the best amalgam of “Annie Hall,” “Weird Science,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Stranger than Fiction” and “Xanadu” that anyone’s ever going to make.
But the fact that I could so easily come up with that list of titles while watching the movie — when I would rather have been watching any of the films on that list — doesn’t speak all that well for this second effort from “Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
There would be interesting connections to be made regarding the fact that Zoe Kazan both wrote the script and stars in the title role as a woman who is literally a writer's creation if Kazan’s own literary efforts had anything new to say about how men try to control women, or how quirks that initially seem endearing become thoroughly annoying, or how artists depict the world as they’d like to see it rather than how it really is.
Instead, “Ruby Sparks” assaults the audience with such an unending charm offensive that what initially seems cute becomes cutesy, and what feels quirky descends into twee.
Blocked author Calvin (Paul Dano) hasn’t produced a major piece of writing since a decade ago when, as a 19-year-old high-school dropout, he wrote a culture-shaping, best-selling novel. Now he stares at his electric Olympia typewriter — yes, this is one of those characters in one of those movies — unable to imprint upon the blank page. The only people Calvin connects to in the outside world are his gregarious brother Harry (Chris Messina) and his therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould).
It’s Dr. Rosenthal who assigns Calvin to write a page, no matter how terrible, and Calvin finds inspiration in his dreams to write about his ideal woman, Ruby (Kazan). And then one morning she’s standing in his kitchen eating breakfast. Calvin thinks he’s losing his mind, but then he realizes that other people can see her.
Everything’s great at first, but eventually Ruby chafes under Calvin’s doting attention and the fact that he doesn’t have friends. When she starts making a move toward leaving the relationship, will her creator resist the temptation to pull his manuscript out of the drawer and to start editing Ruby to be more pliable, more manipulable, more the woman Calvin thinks he wants but can’t control once he has her?
“Ruby Sparks” certainly touches on some potentially fascinating concepts, but it never delivers on any of its notions. Worse, the film doesn’t trust the audience to understand the implications beneath its fantasy surface — there’s a completely unnecessary scene in which Calvin’s ex (Deborah Ann Woll) turns up to catalog his faults, as though we hadn’t already figured those out for ourselves by watching how he treats (and revises) Ruby.
And while Ruby herself takes the expression “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to new levels of literalness, Kazan doesn’t make this creation as appealing as a more seasoned actress might. She and Dano have been interesting to watch in other movies, but this time out, he’s such a hipster downer (all the way to his gray cardigans) and she’s so artificially twinkly that I didn’t particularly care what happened to either of them, together or apart.
There are some memorable turns by Messina and Annette Bening (as Calvin and Harry’s earth-mother mom) and Antonio Banderas (as mom’s artist boyfriend), and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan,” “Iron Man”) gives Los Angeles a breezy sheen as Calvin and Ruby hit any number of movie-nerd hotspots, including the Egyptian Theater, the Hammer Museum and the outdoor screenings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Like a lot of young-adult relationships, “Ruby Sparks” feels charming at first, becomes less interesting as it goes along, and winds up barely memorable by the end. Consider saving yourself the heartache and postponing your date until you can meet on your Netflix queue in about six months.