Film review: Ruby Sparks

IT’S been six years since Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine. Now the husband and wife team move from the messy lives of an extended family all nursing wildly unrealistic dreams to a solitary ­introspective writer who just wants to find the right girl.

Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Running time: 104 minutes

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For Ruby Sparks, Dayton and Faris have teamed up with another real-life couple: Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia Kazan, and daughter of screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, who wrote Reversal Of Fortune) and her actor boyfriend Paul Dano (who played the older brother in Little Miss Sunshine and popped up in Looper just last month). Calvin (Dano) is a shy novelist who became a literary sensation with his first novel at 19, but is still struggling to produce a follow-up at 29. His love life is also a blank page; after the break-up of his last relationship, his closest companion is a dog with peeing issues.

His therapist (Elliot Gould) suggests he unblocks by writing about his perfect woman. That night he dreams up a girl who has bright red hair, blue eyes, and coloured tights, whose heroes are John Lennon and Humphrey Bogart. It also suggests that Calvin really likes Zooey Deschanel movies.

The more Calvin thinks about Ruby Sparks, the more he likes the idea of her – then her bra shows up in his house, followed by a lady’s razor, until one day she’s in his kitchen, eating cereal and unaware she’s fictional. Other people can see her too, including his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), who is impressed that Calvin can shape Ruby to speak French or cook eggs just by typing it into his book, and urges him to write her a bigger pair of breasts. Commendably, Calvin resists editing Ruby – until she complains about his routine life, bonds with Calvin’s bohemian mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) and starts to strike out on her own. Flirting with his sleazy novelist pal (Steve Coogan) is the last straw, so Calvin gets out his typewriter and starts fine-tuning her. The trouble is that, instead of ­becoming his dream girl again, he makes her a lot worse. When he writes that Ruby is more dependent on him, she becomes so clingy that she cries if he lets go of her hand and if he rewrites her mood as upbeat, she becomes manic.

This is a Frankenstein fable about possessiveness, god complexes and being careful what you wish for, and you have to admire Zoe Kazan’s script for attempting to upgrade from the usual romcom rusk formula into something chewier. The performances are excellent, and things only start to unravel when it becomes clear that that the film isn’t brave enough to try out some of its darker possibilities. And while Ruby can be read as a commentary on the way actresses are often required to play women who are just plot conveniences, Calvin really isn’t much more than movie shorthand for a writer. He uses a typewriter instead of a computer for no real reason other than it looks literary, and his dog is named after F Scott Fitzgerald. Also, he never hits the space bar.

Still, in a fable about embracing things that are less than perfect despite their faults, Ruby Sparks registers as a flawed but likeable movie. It may score more highly in concept than execution but Kazan is certainly worth keeping an eye on. And it could have been a whole lot worse: imagine if Woody Allen had written this.

• On general release from Friday