You Make My Dreams Come True

Ruby and Calvin. A couple that shouldn’t exist, can’t exist, but does for the duration of “Ruby Sparks.” It’s a film that giddily blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction until they become one. The creation of a person within an individual’s reality can be explained by any number of mental abnormalities, but to dream a person into actual reality, to the degree that other people can see them, touch them, converse with them? As Calvin himself states, “It’s love! It’s magic!” The film isn’t quite magical, but it blends lots of interesting human themes and personal dilemmas into a charmingly unconventional (if occasionally predictable) romantic comedy.

Paul Dano stars as Calvin, the aforementioned dreamer – a perpetual loner and former bestselling author. Now in his late 20s, Calvin hasn’t produced anything of note in a decade and he’s suffering from a paralyzing case of writer’s block. Inspiration is hard to come by. His one friend in the world is his dog, Scotty. Calvin’s shrink, Dr. Rosenthal (played by the great Elliot Gould), suggests he write something. Anything. “Write something bad,” Rosenthal begs. Alternatively, Calvin’s agent (Steve Coogan) seems content to live in the past, shamelessly hawking the 10th anniversary edition of his client’s singular hit book.

Suddenly, a girl appears to Calvin in a dream. At first, just an outline, but with subsequent dreams and therapy sessions, the details start to fill in. He starts writing again. Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), as Calvin starts to call her, is a 26 year-old redhead from Dayton, Ohio. Cute. Quirky. Loves to paint. Perhaps not the dream girl of every guy, especially Calvin’s harmlessly chauvinistic brother, Harry (Chris Messina), but it seems like a perfect match between the dream and the dreamer. Calvin confesses to falling in love with her, to the chagrin of Dr. Rosenthal. He can’t get her out of his head. But not for long.

When Ruby appears in Calvin’s kitchen, he assumes he’s having a nervous breakdown, but it soon becomes clear that she’s real, for lack of a better word. Unbelievably and inexplicably real. Where the film goes from here ranges from bubbly and sweet to darkly uncomfortable. When Calvin realizes the enormity of his powers (writing this girl into existence and being able to re-write her flaws), the film’s intent comes into focus. “Ruby Sparks” is a stark metaphor for grown-up relationships and how “perfect” is never perfect. The tonal shifts might be jarring, but they serve their thematic purpose.

To know the film’s premise is to have a general idea of where it might go, but its joys come from the competence of the two leads. Paul Dano’s performance is arguably his finest to date. His facial expressions signal more surprise and awkwardness and pain that most actors can express in pages and pages of dialogue. Zoe Kazan is a terrific Ruby Sparks, effortlessly taking the character from comedy to drama and from likability to general unpleasantness. The moments these two share are absolutely the backbone of the film.

Remarkably, Zoe Kazan also wrote the film. Yes, it’s amusing that she basically wrote the part of “dream girl” for herself, but the narrative comes from a decidedly male perspective. The handle that she has on the consciousness of Calvin is almost spooky, both as Ruby and the screenwriter. And equal credit goes to co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Fair (“Little Miss Sunshine”) who keep things as light as possible when their actors are forced to do some dramatic heavy lifting.

Unfortunately, there’s a particular tangent in the middle of the film that isn’t funny or enlightening in the least. This narrative pit stop involves Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s mother and stepfather, and it’s the film’s biggest misstep. The two play Big Sur hippies that seem entirely detached from Calvin and the rest of the narrative. These scenes obviously made the final cut because of the involvement two big name actors, but they’re of no significance to the story.

The movie’s denouement is similarly underwhelming. It’s the kind of vague but trite ending I would have expected test screening audiences to soundly reject, but with a small(ish) production, it’s understandable that rewrites and reshoots aren’t always feasible. There’s a certain disappointing inevitability to the way things wrap up. It isn’t very cohesive, but it’s not enough to ruin the film’s successes.

“Ruby Sparks” is a uniquely palatable concoction – part Woody Allen, part John Hughes, part Rod Serling. Its heart is bigger than its ambitions, but its narrative is anything but hollow. Dano’s performance is excellent, maybe even Oscar-worthy, and it’s hard to imagine any other twenty-something actor carrying this material with such ease. Kazan doesn’t fare quite as well as Dano on screen, but her off screen contributions are what provided this duo with these fantastic roles in the first place. The film may not set the box office on fire, but for fans of Dano, Kazan, or romantic comedies with a fantasy element, you can’t do much better than this.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenwriter: Zoe Kazan
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina, Deborah Ann Woll
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use)