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'Ruby Sparks' is a real gem

"Ruby Sparks"

3 stars

Rated R (language including some sexual references, and for some drug use)

DIRECTORS: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

CAST: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina and Annette Bening

Opens Friday at Park Place Stadium Cinemas

 

"Ruby Sparks" slyly, smartly pokes holes in the romanticism of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. But it also toys with the larger notion of idealizing people you don't really know just because you've fallen for them and want all that warm, gooey stuff to be true.

Superficially, it's about the struggle to create, as seen through the writer's block an acclaimed novelist suffers in trying to craft his sophomore effort. But it's also about the fantasies we all create in our heads, the detours from reality that assuage us.

Delight and charm ultimately win out over any deep revelations, though, as the script from Zoe Kazan -- who also stars as the title character -- keeps things light and bright. This is also true of the brisk direction from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team behind "Little Miss Sunshine," which was the very definition of a crowd-pleaser.

The fact that Kazan and co-star Paul Dano have been a real-life couple for the past five years provides a bit of intriguing context, but their on-screen romance is more universally relatable.

Dano stars as Calvin, a writer who achieved worldwide success and acclaim at a staggeringly young age with a novel that gets mentioned in the same breath as "The Catcher in the Rye." Years later, he's still trying to follow that up. He wakes up each day by himself, drags his lanky body upstairs to his home office and stares at an empty sheet of white paper that sits in the typewriter, quietly mocking him. (Yes, Calvin is that kind of old-school writer.)

When the words do come, they don't so much form a story but a person: Ruby Sparks, a 26-year-old painter from Dayton, Ohio. More a collection of quirks than a real character -- she's all colorful tights and homemade meatloaf -- she becomes Calvin's muse and eventually his love. He can't stand to be away from the typewriter because it means being away from her; you can feel the ache in Dano's soulful eyes, in his neurotic demeanor.

And then, one day, Ruby shows up. She just shows up in the kitchen and starts making breakfast. (Matthew Libatique's cinematography is crisp and clean, making Calvin's modern, minimalist home seem like the manifestation of his inner blankness; he's nothing until this woman comes along.)

Calvin naturally freaks out and assumes she must be a hallucination...until they go out in public and he realizes other people can see her, too. His brother, Harry (Chris Messina), a slick agent, recognizes the potential here and suggests that Calvin do a little tweaking to Ruby whenever he wants, for fun if nothing else. (Messina injects a bit of grounding in this frothy situation.)

Calvin refuses, insisting that she's perfect just the way she is...at first. But then he discovers he can make her speak French. He can make her depressed. He can make her worship him. And the scariest scenario of all: He can make her think for herself.

Because the script and lead performance spring from the mind of a woman, "Ruby Sparks" offers up and then upends all the various incarnations of stereotypical femininity. Kazan consistently finds the humor and sensitivity in this outlandish premise.

Sure, it feels like a Los Feliz hipster version of a Woody Allen movie, an updated take on "Pygmalion" for a generation that has grown accustomed to instant gratification. But maybe it'll give you something to think about as you Facebook stalk that cute girl you just met for coffee.

 


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