Since the late '90s, the surreal plights of dreamy-eyed romantic loners have been unequivocally chronicled by filmmakers with hip cachet, like the prominently idolized Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. With Zoe Kazan's startlingly insightful debut screenplay for "Ruby Sparks," in which she stars alongside longtime boyfriend Paul Dano, the actor-writer manages to inhabit this preexisting terrain while avoiding the temptation to exploit it.
Kazan's whimsical romance, about a struggling young writer whose dream girl physically emerges from the pages of his novel, recaptures the possibilities of profundity initially offered by this curious subgenre. Aided by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the team behind "Little Miss Sunshine"), Kazan has fun with a silly premise and smartly plays it straight when the occasion calls for it, while keeping the cutesy, fantastical extremes of the material at bay. It's less fairy tale than shrewd exaggeration on the pratfalls of desire.
One may initially object to the world of "Ruby Sparks" simply because its solemn leading man uses a typewriter. What contemporary movie, pace everything in Woody Allen's immutable output, can get away with such a glaring anachronism? "Ruby Sparks," however, uses the antiquated prop to render its flighty high concept in material terms: When neurotic author Calvin (Dano) writes about the titular smiling young woman he sees in his dreams, he's stunned to find that she not only comes to life but behaves entirely in accordance with whatever he writes. The typewriter has a mechanical quality that makes its status as a vessel for Calvin's urges more immediately palpable than the artificial (or digital) associations a computer would bring. She's not a piece of technology. The ink on Calvin's pages is as real as Ruby Sparks and vica versa.
Before that happens, however, there's not much ink flowing in Calvin's life. Having found early success with a bestselling novel at 19, Calvin now subsists as a jaded twentysomething suffering from a serious case of writer's block. When not rolling his eyes through public appearances and gazing at a blank page, Calvin prefers to babble to his sullen therapist (an enjoyably subdued Elliot Gould) about the girl of his dreams rather than figure out a plan for finishing his next tome. When the doctor suggests his patient write about her, Calvin finds himself at first terrified by the results and then besmitten with his organic creation. The dream, metaphorically and otherwise, can't last forever -- and so the initial arrival of Ruby in Calvin's waking life provides a starting point for exploring his arrested development.
Dayton and Faris frame the scenario in breezy terms but keep its provocative ramifications in play, particularly once they reach a tragic extreme that forces Calvin to confront the psychological hangups at root of Ruby's construction. With a more blatantly intellectual bent than the duo's previous feature, the new movie fluidly cycles through a series of tones: Initially a kind of irreverent rom-com, it slowly turns introspective as Ruby's personality begins to stray from Calvin's original conception of her. Free will, narcissism and ego come into play -- but almost entirely through plot development rather than on-the-nose pontification.