Ruby Sparks is a film about writer's block made by people who seem themselves creatively constipated. Based on an original script by star Zoe Kazan, the second feature from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris follows a depressed writer who falls in love with one of his characters, developing an attraction so strong that he literally wills her to life. But the movie leaves its most tantalizing aspects undeveloped, producing something akin to the unbalanced lover who's light and goofy one day and erratic and insufferable the next.
Little Miss Sunshine star Paul Dano plays Calvin, a literary prodigy whose first major success came when he was 19 years old. Calvin's been told constantly that he is a genius, which would be encouraging except for one thing: He has run out of ideas. To comfort himself, he invents Ruby (Kazan), the timid, nebbishy author's projection of an ideal companion.
A perky, quirky character drawn from Calvin's dreams, Ruby has an ostensibly infectious, effervescent attitude. Kazan clearly modeled Ruby on the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" archetype identified by critic Nathan Rabin — the Amelie-esque sprite most popularly embodied by Zooey Deschanel — and her personality is a laundry list of random kooky tics. With a few keystrokes, Calvin can make the purple tights-wearing free spirit speak French fluently, or feel so happy that she bounces up and down on Calvin's bed. Ruby's like Pippi Longstocking's kittenishly oversexed older sister, except not nearly as charming.
Indeed, Ruby Sparks has promise as a critique of the limited understanding and imagination male writers often bring to female characters. Or at least it would, if the movie didn't expect us to join Calvin in flipping for this embodiment of pixie-girl clichés. Kazan's script is thoughtful enough to give the romantic relationship between a shut-in and a figment of his imagination a lot of potentially dark undertones. But she rarely follows through on her better script ideas — such as the largely undeveloped suggestion that Calvin's mom Gertrude (Annette Bening) changed her personality entirely after she met her artist boyfriend (Antonio Banderas), paralleling Ruby's relationship to Calvin.
As directors, Dayton and Faris rely on heavy-handed emotional cues instead of letting the feeling and drama emerge from the material. The scenes where Calvin realizes just how dangerous it is to make Ruby act only the way he wants come off as perfunctory and lacking in nuance. A half-assed deconstruction of clichéd characters that fails to breathe life and originality into its own, Ruby Sparks is alternately too dumb and too smart for its own good.
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