It's one of the most cherished legends of the American indie: A socially retarded ugly duck, despite making no effort to regulate his glaring emotional hang-ups, is discovered as a swan by a clearly out-of-his-league girl who loves him just the way he is. Buffalo '66 (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) are the best-known examples of the spaz wish-fulfillment romance, but the last decade-plus has brought along many also-rans, like the toxic Gigantic, starring Paul Dano.
It is appropriate, then, that Dano should star in Ruby Sparks, a loser love story that is also a moral-fable critique of the same. Dano plays Calvin, a one-hit novelist struggling through two dry spells. As his claim-to-fame tome has just come out in a tenth anniversary edition, Calvin has writer's block and meanwhile complains to his therapist (Elliott Gould) and brother (Chris Messina) of being unable to believe that any woman might want him for something other than his niche fame.
The shrink advises him to write himself an unconditional love story, and Calvin proceeds to think up exactly the sort of preciously troubled, whimsical, impractical, thrift-store chic, just feasibly girlfriendable little kook that Zooey Deschanel has made a career of — "Can't drive...doesn't own a computer...roots for the underdog" — giving her the adorable sobriquet of "Ruby Sparks" for good measure. It's almost a parody of the type — and as Ruby Sparks continues, it occurs that the film is after exactly that.
Calvin's brother, who's married and has negotiated the post-honeymoon comedown, has harsh words when he reads Calvin's first-draft feminine ideal: "Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real." But then, in a burst of literary Weird Science, Ruby miraculously appears in the flesh, making breakfast one morning in Calvin's house. Calvin thinks he's finally having his crack-up but soon discovers that he isn't the only one who can see Ruby — and just like that, he's dating his own creation, who's cluttering up the house with her awful paintings.
Ruby is played by 28-year-old Zoe Kazan, who co-starred with Dano in Meek's Cutoff — they are co-producers here and apparently "romantically linked," as are co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). With her headlamp eyes and crimson bow of a mouth, Kazan has the sort of faintly retro prettiness that might make her a shoo-in for the next "It" hipster pinup, a trajectory her film and television work thus far would seem to endorse. But Kazan also wrote the screenplay for Ruby Sparks, which begs interpretation as a frustrated actresses' commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women — that is, for maximum convenience.
At first, all is harmonious between Calvin and custom-fit Ruby — there is sometimes exactly this feeling in the first elated steps of a romance, as though one might have invented this perfect other person. When inevitable incompatibilities arise, however, Calvin violates his own rule by returning to the typewriter, where he discovers that he can "edit" his creation, inadvertently rewriting her as codependent, dippily elated and bipolar — license for Kazan to run amok, with a winning lack of self-consciousness.
Dayton and Faris's direction is never more than workmanlike, and they tend to buckle at high-pressure moments, interpreting bliss through French-pop soundtracked "fun" montages or Calvin and Ruby's big confrontation through a squall of distracting effects. The script can also be charged a number of missed opportunities and withholdings: One wishes that Ruby Sparks was not so demure in matters of sex, for certainly there are laughs to be had here. The treatment of the writer's life is shallow, references never going further afield than Fitzgerald and Salinger. And there is, finally, no single moment that lets the air out of romantic wish-fulfillment as well as the single Seinfeld line-reading: "I can't be with someone like me. I hate myself!" (Although Calvin's ex-girlfriend's comeuppance, "The only person that you wanted to be in a relationship with was you," comes close.)
On a visit to Calvin's gone-granola mother and her outdoorsman boyfriend (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas) in Big Sur, a game of charades brings up the title What Women Want, Nancy Meyers' film in which chauvinist Mel Gibson gets electrocuted with a hairdryer and is suddenly able to read women's minds — it's this sort of middle-of-the-road battle-of-the-sexes comic fantasy that Ruby Sparks aspires to. And taken on these terms, it's a quite sympathetic movie, breaking down the Sundance cult of cuddly "underdog" vulnerability that is too often camouflage for self-absorption.
On that same visit, Calvin is gifted a frightful driftwood chair by Mom's boyfriend, which he only accepts with hesitation, for it is the sort of thing that would never "go" in his Los Feliz pad, ready for its Dwell magazine spread; toward the end of the film, he's writing from the same chair. It's a soft-landing punch line that, better than the corny kicker, drives home the film's criticism of hipster-aesthete xenophobia — don't be so sure of what you're like, it says, or what you like. You'll miss a lot that way.
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