'Ruby Sparks' is a novel of fantasies

Published Aug. 8, 2012

Ruby Sparks (R) (104 min.) — Authors are instructed to write what they know. Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) already did that and became a literary phenomenon; a new Salinger, some say. Now Calvin is writing what he has never known, a sexy, supportive woman, perfect in every way. Ruby Sparks is only pages in his vintage typewriter, until she incredibly comes alive.

Ruby is played by Zoe Kazan, an unconventional beauty who cleverly wrote this character for herself, handing it over to the Little Miss Sunshine directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. They are aware of every move that could make Ruby Sparks a traditional rom-com fantasy and nimbly avoid most of them, resulting in the freshest twist on the genre since (500) Days of Summer.

Typically Calvin would be the only person able to see Ruby, talking to and kissing thin air and the movie would be spent proving he's not crazy. Kazan flips the script, making her real and delightful to everyone, so Calvin appears crazy when he has second thoughts about loving her. Romantic comedies usually hinge on one partner trying to change the other, but rarely does it happen by tapping typewriter keys.

Faris and Dayton approach this supernatural material with only a scrap of whimsy, and the affectionately drollness that made Little Miss Sunshine an odd delight. Even the moments when Calvin rewrites Ruby's behavior are handled naturally, as if truly possible. There is a careful-what-you-wish-for moral to the fantasy that gets a bit tiresome as Kazan writes Ruby and Calvin's dilemma into a corner.

There's always the hipster chemistry between Kazan and Dano to enjoy, an extension of their off-screen partnership. You get the feeling they've gone through the issues Calvin is writing for himself and Ruby; the first rush of love, and the doubts, clinging and mistrust that may follow. Dano plays Calvin with a perpetual look of panicked surprise, as if someone is always slapping the back of his head. Kazan is appealing in a Zooey Deschanel way yet willing to make Ruby less than adorable sometimes.

Ruby Sparks isn't a bubbly, brainless rom-com. It's a movie that percolates slowly, establishing why Calvin needs Ruby in his life and eventually why he can't stay with her. Fantasy, yes, but not far removed from love stories in real life. If the movie doesn't tell anything we don't already know, it's told with intelligent charm. B+ (Veterans 24 and Citrus Park 20 in Tampa, Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar, BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg)

Steve Persall, Times movie critic