The idea of bringing a dream significant other to life goes back at least as far as the ancient Greek myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, who created a statue so beautiful he fell in love with her. Modern versions and variations include the sublime (“My Fair Lady,” based on a play by George Bernard Shaw called “Pygmalion”) and the sillly (“Mannequin,” “Weird Science,” and “Mr. Right”). “Ruby Sparks,” written by its star, Zoe Kazan, is a smart and endearing variation on the theme with emotional resonance that goes beyond the usual “be careful what you wish for” fairy tale. It plays with the very notion of the prevalence of the girl whose job in the movie is to be the life force (memorably termed the “manic pixie dream girl” by critic Nathan Rabin). The story may be about the writer who dreams up Kazan’s character, but it is Kazan’s voice telling the story.
Paul Dano (Kazan’s real-life boyfriend) plays Calvin (the names are well chosen), a writer of retro tastes (he uses a typewriter and drives a vintage car) who dresses in beiges and is struggling to write again after publishing an influential and critically acclaimed best-seller when he was a teenager. His therapist (Elliott Gould) has suggested that Calvin get a dog to help him go out and meet people. And he tells Calvin to just write something, anything, even something awful, to get going. Calvin gets caught up describing a warm-hearted and high-spirited girl named Ruby Sparks. And the next morning, when he goes downstairs, there she is, matter-of-factly making breakfast, as though she is there every morning.
He understandably thinks he has lost his mind. But then it turns out other people see her, too. And it turns out that when he goes back upstairs to type additional information, she becomes whatever he writes. When he writes that she speaks French, she speaks French. She is literally a dream come true. And at first, that seems perfect.
Kazan the screenwriter understands Calvin’s conflict. He wants Ruby to be exactly what he has created, but he wants her to love him of her own volition, and he understands, at some level, that he cannot have both. “I want to be what’s making her happy without making her happy,” he says.
Kazan’s fantasy is soundly based and superbly structured. As Ruby expands Calvin’s plain, ordered world, their scope widens to include Calvin’s family and colleagues. They visit his beaming child-of-the-universe mother (Annette Bening, embracing the caftan) and her sculptor boyfriend (a marvelous Antonio Banderas as Mort) and attend his publisher’s party. Ruby becomes more and more her own person, which makes Calvin become his own person, too.
Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”) make this world believable and inviting. They keep the fantasy ligh but understand the emotional core that makes it bloom.
Parents should know this film has strong and explicit language, some crude references, brief drug use, and a non-explicit sexual situation.
Family discussion: Where did Ruby come from? What other stories do you know about people who created their dream significant other?
If you like this, try: “Stranger than Fiction” and “happythankyoumoreplease”