The amusing but ultimately tepid comedy Ruby Sparks has a provocative and potentially harrowing premise.
At times, the ingenuity and insight of screenwriter and star Zoe Kazan is impressive, even veering toward Charlie Kaufman territory, but the resulting film is a copout that never really explores its darkest impulses. That is, what starts out as a modern version of the kind of nightmarish tale of humans and automatons spun by the 19th-century German short story writer E.T.A. Hoffmann ("The Sandman," "The Nutcracker") ends up being a bland, likable but unmemorable romantic blah-blah.
Calvin (Paul Dano) is a famous, brilliant young novelist, but as a person, he's a self-pitying, controlling pill. Still fuming over the girl who left him, he's in therapy and struggling to write the follow-up to his masterpiece. After an exercise given to him by his therapist, he starts dreaming of the woman he would like to meet. He types about her on his artisanal typewriter, a machine that turns out to be magic: Presto, his creation, Ruby Sparks, appears.
Soon, his dream girl is living in his apartment, and the two have a few precious movie-montage moments of happiness before the complications begin. Ruby starts to find the relationship stifling, and gives off unmistakable signs of leaving him. To forestall this, Calvin begins to abuse the power of his magic typewriter to control his creation. If that sounds like a disturbing turn of events, it should. But this script avoids exploring those dark alleys of creation and obsession, of a man's need to control a woman. (Coincidentally, this is the theme of Vertigo, the Hitchcock film that recently toppled Citizen Kane from its half-century perch atop Sight & Sound's poll of greatest movies of all time.)
But Ruby Sparks is minor league. As brilliant as Calvin supposedly is, the girl of his fantasy is nothing more than another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the species of cute, quirky, almost-wild-but-basically-virginal female first identified by critic Nathan Rabin in such films as Garden State. It doesn't help that this dream creature is played by Kazan, an unexceptional actress who suggests little more sophistication than your average college student part-timing as a barista. An intellectual's fantasy figure such as Ruby demands the intelligence, vulnerability, charm and chops of someone like Emily Blunt or ... Emily Blunt or Emily Blunt.
As wearily familiar as the figure of Ruby is, the film gives signs of having deeper ambitions for this character. Does it matter that Ruby is such a familiar type in contemporary indie comedies? Perhaps Kazan's point is that this clichéd female is all the intellectually superior Calvin can conjure—and that should tell us something about him.
The film, directed by the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), goes by easily and amusingly enough, but Kazan's script is considerably underdeveloped. For example, a sequence set in an elaborately detailed California hippie hideaway, complete with Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas and "medicinal" plantings, promises a comic explosion that never arrives.
Ruby Sparks is strongest where it explores the narcissism and self-regard of a male artist who can only think about women as they might serve his needs. The film's most insightful female character turns out to be Calvin's ex-girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll), who appears late in the film. She calls out Calvin's self-absorption and insecurity; in the process, she proves a far more compelling foil for him than Ruby.
Curiously, Ruby never truly asserts her autonomy from Calvin, her creator. But then, the ultimate victory could be Kazan's. She wrote all the characters in the film and, by writing herself into the lead, made herself the object of desire.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dream lovers."