Who is the perfect girlfriend? Does she have an interesting past? Is she an amazing cook? Someone who thinks a zombie movie marathon is the perfect night out? For Calvin, all these requirements, and more, make up his dream girl, and Calvin can guarantee these things are true, for he has the uncanny ability to manifest his ideal girlfriend.
Calvin, played with a constant look of astonishment by Paul Dano, is a writer who found success at a very young age. His first novel, written in his late teens, was a smash, but he has since dealt with a bout of writer’s block and a series of personal problems, including a heartbreaking previous relationship. After dreaming of a mysterious young woman, he incorporates this ideal female into a casual writing assignment given to him by his therapist (Elliot Gould). He develops a novel, writing more and more about her and falling more and more in love with his perfected, fictional creation. Lucky for him, Calvin’s obsessive writing leads to a miracle—one day, Ruby (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film) appears in his kitchen, completely real.
After the initial shock, the film does itself a favor by not delving into the why this amazing event occurred. The focus is not on this miraculous event, but how it affects Calvin and his other relationships. Calvin only understands that not only did he manifest this woman, but everything he writes about her subsequently will immediately appear in her personality—he types that she is fluent in French, and she starts speaking French. His struggle throughout the film is to keep from messing with her original state. He initially locks his manuscript away, not wanting to tamper with his creation, who has now become his live-in girlfriend. Like any real woman, however, she is subject to change, and with every change, Calvin becomes increasingly panicked that without control of her personality, he may lose Ruby.
Ruby Sparks has a plot that is part standard romantic comedy fare, part Stranger Than Fiction, and even a little Frankenstein. In their first film since Little Miss Sunshine, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris create another colorful world filled with animated characters. Chris Messina, who plays Calvin’s brother Harry, and the only other character who knows the origins of Ruby, stands out by grounding a pretty unbelievable situation with humor and a sense of family. The rest of the film is chock full of eclectic cameos, each one like a surprise waiting in the next shot. These include Steve Coogan, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas. Real-life couple Dano and Kazan (who also starred as husband and wife in Kelly Reichardt’s last film, Meek’s Cutoff) certainly bring a sweetness to the film. Ruby Sparks entertains and makes for an enjoyable romantic comedy with a twist.
Ruby Sparks falters, however, in deciding where to take its theme. At times it was difficult to determine whether the film was poking fun at the quirky, dream girl trope, or simply embracing it with a fun twist. It was hard for me to accept the allure of Ruby, though knowing she is a fabrication of another character’s imagination. Even as she changes throughout the film, how much autonomy does she really have? The film includes some darker moments, where Calvin realizes both the danger and delight of having so much power over Ruby’s actions. Those more serious ideas concerning responsibly towards a creation would be interesting to explore, but the film never truly departs from its cute concept. Perhaps, like Ruby herself, the audience is purposefully jerked around, but the ending left me wondering exactly what Calvin learned from this amazing experience, and how this fantasy of the idiosyncratic dream girl isn’t that much different than any other romantic pipe dream.