Ruby Sparks succeeds as a satirical fantasy about writerly self-involvement (and the many things, good and bad, the quirk can unexpectedly manifest), but it's worth celebrating as a testament to self-made greatness, particularly in regard to the efforts of writer/star Zoe Kazan. An indie darling largely known for peripheral parts in films like Meek's Cutoff (not to mention for her ties to grandfather Elia), the 28-year-old soars past all her prior work with a showcase she shrewdly, yet endearingly, penned for herself. As the title character, a capricious free spirit who springs from the mind of novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (the actress's real-life beau, Paul Dano), Kazan unleashes one of this year's better female performances, an evolving turn that's rich and surprisingly torrential. At once a strong-willed woman and a slave to whatever spools out of Calvin's typewriter, Ruby intensely embodies a string of emotional developments, letting Kazan's acting and material ride a rollercoaster of interdependence, each serving the other before careening to a superbly histrionic climax. The gifts of this inherent symbiosis free Ruby Sparks from the kitsch of its conceit and the trappings of its genre. It's a mad passion project about mad passion projects, nestled comfortably in the padded room of a romantic comedy.
It's also, of course, a couple's movie born of multiple couples, as Kazan didn't just develop something in which she and Dano could co-star, she sought collaboration with co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team that helmed Dano's breakout film, Little Miss Sunshine. The dual-sweetheart pedigree may be partially to blame for a slight excess of sentiment, but it's also a likely booster of romantic genuineness. Calvin's starry-eyed bewilderment over his Pygmalion-esque breakthrough has an unforced vintage charm, and Dano and Kazan share a rapport that's knowing and complementary, with tree-side canoodling just as earnest as boiling-point spats. "It's love, it's magical!" Calvin says to his rightfully shocked, guy's-guy brother (Chris Messina), and from Dano's mouth, the words sound like the honest surrender of a bewitched neurotic. For Dayton and Faris, the achievement is as much in the aesthetics as the spirit, for Ruby Sparks boasts a visual language that Little Miss Sunshine lacked. Lensed by Matthew Libatique, the new film has a mise-en-scène of palatably deliberate symbolism, with Calvin's sterile, stark-white apartment serving as both blank page and test-rat's pen, its sharp angles and geometric shapes lending themselves to Libatique's framing. Nearly all else vibrantly juxtaposes the home base, from Ruby's girlish outfits and the couple's strobe-lit night spots to Calvin's colorful hippie mom (a sidelined Annette Bening). While it doesn't break ground, the look throughout firmly supports the film's themes of writerly obsession, right down to the cliché of the ticking typewriter, shown frequently in frantic close-up.
The movie begins with a very familiar device, introducing Calvin, a stalled-out former prodigy still milking the success of his decade-old debut, as he spills his troubles to a shrink (Elliot Gould). The setup gives Calvin a logical excuse to dole out exposition, but it chiefly and aptly establishes the film as one interested in psychology, beyond the mere service of plot. Ruby Sparks always has something deeper brewing beneath its superficial tropes, especially when it comes to Calvin's complicated ego. Though surely geekish in a classically lovable way, this controlling scribe is hardly shaped for typical audience approval, and as a creative type, he's much more than the J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Franzen books that pepper his apartment. In another film, an encounter with an old girlfriend might have cut her down to build up his personal progress, but here, Calvin's meeting with ex Lila (Deborah Ann Woll) startlingly puts you on her side, cementing the lead as more antihero than nebbish underdog. When tempers finally flare and the cat inevitably ekes its way out of the bag, Calvin and Ruby find themselves in a dark dance of creator versus creation, and as Ruby writhes and rants like a malfunctioning Stepford Wife, her repeated cry of "You're a genius!" leaves Calvin blissfully satisfied. In an ostensibly frothy comedy, it's a moment of murky morality, and it dares to suggest that, rather than having created a monster, Calvin may just have one inside.