For their long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s pre-eminent crowdpleaser Little Miss Sunshine, the husband-and-wife directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have taken on a decidedly high-concept literary item along the lines of Adaptation. or The Purple Rose of Cairo. As penned by its young leading lady Zoe Kazan – granddaughter of movie legend Elia – Ruby Sparks could also be read as a critique of a strain of Hollywood thinking, particularly with regard to the female of the species. This particular high-concept has teeth and claws.
Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer with a massive albatross around his neck: the acclaimed novel he wrote as a prodigy ten years ago, and has since found impossible to follow up. With his youthful confidence disappearing with each day of staring at blank foolscap, Calvin creates a consoling fantasy for himself. With her wide eyes, boho style and quasi-adorable quirks, the eponymous Ruby is the model of the manic pixie dreamgirl archetype defined by the critic Nathan Rabin. Trouble starts when isolated items of female clothing show up in Calvin’s apartment, and then – after an especially frenzied session at the typewriter – Ruby herself, as embodied by Kazan: an imaginary girlfriend everybody else just so happens to be able to see.
Calvin realises he can make this fantasy figure happy by bashing out another line of prose, and so the pair’s early time together is described in a deliberately cutesy, too-good-to-be-true manner: look, there’s Ruby in her twirly dress, leaping fully-clothed into a swimming pool! Gradually, however, we see just what a nightmare this dreamgirl would be to live with for any stretch of time. (Dayton and Faris make a pointed fetish item out of the writer’s split-level home, in which Ruby and Calvin rarely enjoy equal footing.) Eventually, for better and worse, Ruby will take on a life of her own, and it’s up to Calvin to adapt to that: does he write the words women say, or those words he himself wants to hear?
Reduced to these bare conceptual bones, Ruby Sparks might sound like so much finger-wagging Hollywood corrective, but as a film, it has the advantage of jokes, real charm, and two cherishable performers creating a relationship you really do believe in. Kazan pushes a kooky archetype about as far as it will go – to the point of crazy-eyed insanity, at points – while giving Ruby moods, modulation, internal life: she fights for the reality of the character, in the hope other writers will take note of what she’s attempting to communicate through her. Dano, too, has to operate on two levels: to show the uptight self-protection of a boy who’s been alone for too long, but also reveal the gentle heart beating beneath the surface, the creative sensibility still to be fully formed.
Though the film is largely forgiving of its muddle-headed protagonist, one party scene, where Calvin’s myriad personality flaws are painfully laid out by his ex (True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll), suggests it may just be too honest to match its predecessor’s feelgood success: the ambiguously sunny ending leaves it for us to decide whether Calvin has turned over a new leaf, or is merely embarking on another chapter in the same old story. Nevertheless, this is the most fully-dimensional rendering of those what-if? stories Woody Allen has been labouring over for the past decade. As a drop-in at Calvin’s folks – Annette Bening in tie-dye, and Antonio Banderas as a wood sculptor responsible for a preposterously tall treehouse – makes resoundingly clear, this buoyant fantasy recognises life can be stranger and richer than fiction.
Ruby Sparks opens in selected cinemas from today.