[Screen It]


(2012) (Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: A novelist must contend with his latest literary creation coming to life in the form of his new, flesh and blood girlfriend.
Calvin Weir-Fields (PAUL DANO) is a novelist whose first work -- written in high school ten years ago -- was a runaway success and labeled him as America's next great author. Since then, however, he's been unable to match that work and often finds himself afflicted with writer's block. That's much to the chagrin of his agent, Cyrus (AASIF MANDVI), who can get him, however reluctantly, to share the stage with fellow novelist Langdon Tharp (STEVE COOGAN) and attend book signings for his fans.

To make matters worse, the only women Calvin seems to attract are those interested in him only due to his fame, a point not lost on Calvin's brother, Harry (CHRIS MESSINA), who's married to Susie (TONI TRUCKS). Harry even laments that Calvin can't get women in his dreams to go to bed with him, just one of various matters that the author discusses with his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (ELLIOT GOULD). The latter eventually convinces Calvin to write just one bad page to get the ball rolling again.

Inspired by another visit by his ideal dream girl, however, Calvin does more than that, and starts cranking out the pages about Ruby Sparks, his latest literary creation. Little does he realize that he's also somehow magically created her in person as a flesh and blood woman (ZOE KAZAN) who sees herself as his girlfriend and is unaware of her unusual genesis.

Calvin initially thinks he's lost his mind, a sentiment shared by Harry, but both not only soon accept that she is indeed real, but also that whatever Calvin types about her comes true, such as suddenly making her speak French. With her unaware of being manipulated, Calvin finds himself content with his girlfriend, even if she wants to meet his hippie style mother, Gertrude (ANNETTE BENING), and her artist boyfriend, Mort (ANTONIO BANDERAS), who live up the coast from Los Angeles.

Determined not to write anything more about Ruby, Calvin starts to have a change of heart as their relationship develops and she soon starts wanting some more personal space. From that point on, Calvin must contend with the ramifications of changes that he makes to her behavior that end up affecting their relationship as a couple.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While it's certainly not the main reason people decide to become writers of fiction, the fact that authors, playwrights, screenwriters and such essentially get to play God in the imaginary universe they've created certainly has some and often a great deal of appeal to them. After all, where else in one's life can you have complete control over the lives of others and thus dictate what they'll do and say?

Of course, and speaking as a former aspiring screenwriter, the interesting thing is that you don't always have full domain over that. Yes, much of what one writes is carefully planned and, no pun intended, plotted out, step by step. But at others, the creative muses kick in and one essentially becomes a transcriber who's channeling the characters' actions and words. It's a weird but fulfilling experience when it occurs, especially when one's creations seemingly start to control their own lives. And while most writers can't summon that on demand, it's an addictive sensation.

Granted, none of my literary creations ever came to life as they do in "Ruby Sparks," a romantic comedy where the title character (played by Zoe Kazan, who also penned the screenplay) somehow, magically, shows up as a real, flesh and blood being in the home of novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano). He was a "boy genius" literary sensation in high school, penning a novel that made him famous, but without real friends and a long-standing problem of trying to measure up to his earlier success a decade earlier with any subsequent works.

Accordingly, he suffers from writer's block, much to the chagrin of his agent (Aasif Mandvi), particularly when his creativity only shows its head in his dreams where he imagines seeing a young woman (Kazan). His brother (Chris Messina) thinks it's pitiful that Calvin can't even end up in bed in his dreams, while his therapist (Elliot Gould) suggests that the author simply write one page of anything just to get on that horse again.

A subsequent nocturnal vision of his dream girl does get him writing again, and before he can even think of the Pygmalion myth (where a sculptor's statue comes to life and becomes his lover), some feminine personal effects show up for real in his place, soon followed by the owner of them. That leads to some amusing moments of comedy-based panic as Calvin thinks he's losing his mind, all while the title character is unaware of her origins and takes up right where he left off writing about her.

In another funny scene, Messina's character, after being convinced that Ruby is real, suggests that the author experiment with modifying Ruby to see exactly what sort of control Calvin has over her. After a few words are pecked out on the typewriter (yes, he's old school), Ruby is suddenly speaking fluent French, again unaware that anything has changed about herself.

From this point, Kazan and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who previously helmed "Little Miss Sunshine" together) could have gone in any number of directions, especially in regards to male fantasy wish fulfillment. For better or worse, though, the filmmakers tread more cautiously, careful not to turn their work into a completely bawdy tale (although it has some moments of that). Instead, they focus more on male/female relationships and how people change in them despite and/or because of one or both trying to control the other in one or more ways.

Thus, once Calvin has created Ruby, he puts the typed papers away and lets things play out on their own. Of course, that doesn't play out exactly as he'd like, especially once she determines she'd like some more space. His subsequent typed behavioral alterations (and their follow-up fixes to correct any over-compensation), however, go awry, initially in a comedic fashion and then in something a bit more serious and even a tad disturbing. While the physical appearance of the titular character is never explained (beyond the quotes that both writing and relationships are magic), the conclusion is handled believably and should appease most everyone.

Despite (or perhaps because of) Dano and Kazan being a real-life couple, the chemistry between their characters never really pops off the screen in the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel managed in "(500) Days of Summer." It's decent, but not electrifying or magical, and thus I never felt engaged enough to the point to root for their success and/or worry about things not playing out as intended. Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas and Steve Coogan appear in extended cameos that are good for a few chuckles, but not much more.

Finally, I wish the filmmakers had been more inventive and creative with working through the material. After all, the sky is pretty much the limit in terms of such a magic tale, and the film sometimes feels a bit too restrained when it could and should have really let loose, at least in brief or extended bursts of zaniness and imagination. Even so, "Ruby Sparks" is entertaining enough to warrant a recommendation for older teens and adults looking for something a little different at the movies. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed July 23, 2012 / Posted July 25, 2012

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