Neurosis hasn’t seemed this adorably sane since Woody Allen. Clever, funny, expertly walking the line between arty and mainstream, “Ruby Sparks” is a lovable romantic comedy, with Paul Dano as a novelist who writes a dream girl, and Zoe Kazan – Dano’s real-life partner, who wrote the screenplay – as the fictional woman who fantastically comes to life, leaving her underwear around his apartment, cooking him eggs.
The film begins with an audacious visual image: a woman we don’t yet know is Ruby, dramatically backlit against a bright-yellow sky, walks toward us on screen. When we see that the scene is Calvin’s dream, the jolt is so trite it seems like a warning, but turns out to be the film’s only let-down. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are the ideal directors for this wispy story. As they did in the more madcap Little Miss Sunshine, they confidently make eccentricity seem endearing when it could so easily have been annoying.
Everyone plays this fantasy without a wink at the audience, but it is Dano who straightforwardly engages us and holds our attention. Kazan has written what feels like a gift for her boyfriend. Calvin is a blocked writer and an immature guy, but he’s not foolish enough to believe in magic, at least not initially. “It’s like that movie ‘Harvey’, except she’s not a giant rabbit,” he says, doubting his own sanity, when trying to explain Ruby’s appearance to his brother (Chris Messina, solid as ever). Part of Calvin’s quirky, endearing character is that he is an anachronism, who uses a typewriter rather than a computer (a magical typewriter?) and has an odd kind of literary celebrity – a first novel published at 19 that made him famous — that today happens on screen much more than in life. Everything is just slightly off-kilter.
Kazan’s screenplay smartly creates a realistic underpinning, though. The film’s central question isn’t “Is Ruby real?” but the even trickier follow up: how much will Calvin control her? One little typed phrase, and she’s suddenly speaking French, but is total control what he wants? And Ruby increasingly seems to have a will of her own. She wants to be a painter; she wants some space; she knows nothing of her magical-realist origins.
It’s not surprising that Kazan is so good (she did write this) as an off-beat, unspectacular woman only Calvin finds to be perfection. But the rest of the cast matches her, in some delightful set pieces. As Calvin’s mother, Annette Bening is a free-spirited left-over hippie (not wildly different from Jane Fonda’s character in the dismal “Peace Love and Misunderstanding”; the type seems to be in fashion this season). Antonio Banderas plays her lover and Elliott Gould Calvin’s shrink. Steve Coogan is hilariously perfect as a self-important writer.
The film’s concept and style aren’t entirely new, of course. Will Ferrell played a fictional character being written by Emma Thompson in Marc Forster’s underrated “Stranger Than Fiction.” And Ruby’s style mirrors Zooey Deschanel’s “adorkable” manner in ‘New Girl.” If you find “Stranger Than Fiction” too whimsical and “New Girl” cloying, then never mind. For anyone else, “Ruby Sparks” is a lovely escape to a place where fabulist dreams and real life can happily coexist.