Ruby Sparks: (500) Days of Bummer

Designed to be this summer's hot indie comedy, the latest from the duo that directed 'Little Miss Sunshine' woos but doesn't seduce

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Fox Searchlight Pictures

Zoe Kazan ought to know her way around a movie script. Her grandfather, the Broadway and Hollywood legend Elia Kazan, directed A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront; her parents are screenwriters Robin Swicord (Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Nicholas Kazan (Frances, Patty Hearst, Reversal of Fortune, Matilda). So the 28-year-old writer-actress has the lineage to know what stories have worked in films, and the cleverness to write herself a leading role in her own screenplay.

A high-concept twist on a familiar fantastic premise, Ruby Sparks is designed — in fact, a little too carefully calculated — to be this summer’s hot indie comedy in the tradition of Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are Alright and (500) Days of Summer. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the duo that directed Little Miss Sunshine, have processed Kazan’s original screenplay until it is by turns clever and soft, in just the places that audiences like. The central characters are two winsome souls — the young novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) and free-spirited Ruby (Kazan) — who seem made for each other. Yes, but not quite. Calvin made Ruby, made her up, wrote her down. No wonder she loves the guy. He created her, as Pygmalion did Galatea.

(READ: Corliss’s review of (500) Days of Summer)

Ah, the imaginary friend. Children dream up these soul mates to offer companionship and validation, to express their brighter or darker sides; they also provide a blank slate for the infant creative impulse to scrawl on. Hollywood, a factory of make-believe that manufactures grownup imaginary friends the world can love or hate, loves this plot. Over the decades, such actors as Joseph Cotten, Russell Crowe, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton, James Stewart and Robert Walker have played men intoxicated by their significant imaginary others. (I’m trying not to give too much information to readers who haven’t seen all these films. If you want to know the titles, you can find them at the end of this review.*)

Kazan has another idea: that when we become adults, the kid is still inside us. We often impose imaginary traits on those we love, remaking them in our image — in a way, fictionalizing them — and priming ourselves for disappointment when they turn out to be their own, real-life creations. Reaching maturity means accepting the raw truth that people are different, that they began writing their stories long before we met them, and that we should not expect them to adhere to our fairy-tale ideals any more than that we should suit theirs. Kazan’s script is a metaphor both for the impossible dream of the ideal Significant Other and for creative artists who lose control of their creations.

(READ: Mary Pols’ profile of Zoe Kazan)

Calvin’s job is inventing invisible friends. As a 19-year-old he wrote a novel that readers rapturously compared to The Catcher in the Rye. He’s been trying to duplicate that magic spell ever since, but in the intervening decade he has retreated into a splendid hermitage. He lives alone, if living is the word; for he has closed himself to the experiences that might inspire a second novel.

Enter Ruby: a dream, an angelic blur, silhouetted in the blinding Los Angeles sunlight. She’s friendly and bubbly and — for Calvin the acid test — she likes his quirky dog Scotty, who has gender issues (he pees like a girl). Calvin literally has dreamed of Ruby; now, at the urging of his shrink (Elliott Gould), he begins a short story about her. What he types, she becomes: a dynamite sex partner, a perfect speaker of French. He can make her do or be anything. And the best thing about this invisible friend: she’s visible to Calvin’s nagging brother Henry (Chris Messina) and their loopy mom (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas). No question, Ruby is perfect. But like any brooding writer, Calvin has to start wondering what’s wrong with perfect.

The meta aspects of this project are almost dizzying. Ruby Sparks is three things: a love story, a movie about the process of writing and a movie about acting. Kazan is a writer (her play Absalom premiered at the 2008 Humana Festival in Louisville) and actress, and Dano is her live-in beau and occasional acting partner: they appeared as husband and wife in Kelly Reichardt’s indie Western Meek’s Cutoff. Dayton and Faris are a husband-wife team: they’re a couple directing a couple playing a couple playing a couple — since one of these fictional characters is “real” (Calvin) and the other imaginary. In writing Ruby Sparks, Kazan invented a writer, played by Dano, who invents the character she plays. Ruby is less a full-bodied human, even imaginary, than a series of acting exercises; Kazan must flip the switch from angry to happy at the whim of her director… I mean her boyfriend… I mean herself as the writer. Head hurt yet?

(READ: Richard Zoglin’s review of the Zoe Kazan play Absalom)

Woody Allen has been down this meta road (The Purple Rose of Cairo), and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation), but the genre rarely was this cuddly. Kazan gives her modern lovers retro tastes that senior moviegoers can appreciate. Calvin, not yet 30, pounds away on an Olympia typewriter — no computer for this creator — and speaks on a phone so venerable it has a cord. Staring at one of Henry’s Internet-age gadgets, he asks, “What does this thing even do?”, as if he’s a visitor from an earlier century. And he is: the early- to mid-20th. His dog is named after F. Scott Fitzgerald; Ruby’s pop-culture patron saints (also, presumably, Calvin’s) are Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon; the soundtrack is buttressed with ’60s songs like Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “Game of Love” — though in the Sylvie Vartan cover version, perhaps to underline Ruby’s Francophone facility.

Calvin is mild on the surface, confused inside. That makes him a snug fit for Dano, who has built a film career by being scrupulously unassertive; hiding on screen is how he gets noticed. His voice is a tremulous whisper. His body’s natural posture is a question mark, and so is his persona: pensive and baffled. Even standing still, he appears to be retreating, as if facing the wrong way on an escalator going down. In movies he is often paired with older actors — Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Kevin Kline in The Extra Man, Robert De Niro in Being Flynn — who don’t steal the show so much as they are handed it, and where Dano’s function is to be the farm animal to their tornadoes.

(READ: Mary Pols on Paul Dano in Being Flynn)

His passivity is acceptable for Calvin; Kazan has more trouble inhabiting the character she created. Far from a conventional movie siren, she makes an enormous effort to beguile. But movie charisma is a mysterious quality; some actors have it — maybe they are born with it — and some don’t. Bening, in the small role of a New Age mom whose current job is “re-alphabetizing,” gives a lesson in effortless screen behavior that the young leads can’t, for all their efforts, duplicate.

Same with this film. Ruby Sparks tries its damnedest to make a picture that seduces moviegoers into accepting it as their best imaginary friend forever. But the sweat shows more than the sparkle.

* The films (in alphabetical order): A Beautiful Mind, Fight Club, Harvey, Love Letters, One Touch of Venus, The Woman in the Fifth