‘Ruby Sparks' an offbeat romantic comedy

WHEN LAST WE saw the kooky dame who rescues the sad-sack male from loneliness, she was Keira Knightley, rehabilitating Steve Carell in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."

Her reward for this feat was to look into Carell's creepy Brick Tamland eyes as an asteroid hit the Earth and, although Knightley is a fine actress, the look on her face said, "On the whole, I'd rather be with Channing Tatum."

Women understandably want to break out of this paradigm, a yearning that is the subject of "Ruby Sparks," written by Zoe Kazan (Elia's granddaughter), who plays the title character, written by Kazan as a pointed inversion of movie formula, and an updating of the classic Pygmalion myth.

Kazan stars opposite real-life boyfriend Paul Dano, who plays Calvin, a blocked and frustrated writer still smarting from a long-ended relationship and dealing with a creative impasse that has left him unable to repeat the success of his ballyhooed debut novel.

Enter Ruby, a bubbly redhead who shakes Calvin out of the personal and creative rut, and you're thinking: Here we go again with the kooky, redemptive dame, a character we often don't like because she's predictable, convenient and not quite real.

In Kazan's version, Ruby is not quite real, quite literally. Calvin comes to realize that she's a character he's invented at the typewriter and that she will conform to his slightest wish and whim. This idea appeals to Calvin and is positively seductive to his married brother (Chris Messina) — who tells Calvin he owes it to men everywhere to make Ruby his personal slave.

Calvin, though, is made of less libidinous stuff and becomes intrigued with the complex moral possibilities of the situation: If he can create this woman from thin air, can he also endow her with the freedom to be herself? And if he does, what would it mean to his budding relationship, to his newfound happiness?

The answers give "Ruby Sparks" a melancholy tone, something like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," or "(500) Days of Summer." But in the hands of the directors of "Little Miss Sunshine," it becomes something more upbeat with colorful comic supporting roles for Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, and an ending that puts a hopeful bow on a package of ambivalence.

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at www.philly.com/keepitreel.

Review | sss

Ruby Sparks

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. With Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 104 minutes
Parent's guide: R (sex)

Playing at: Ritz East, Rave 16 NJ

Ruby Sparks

Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. With Zoe Kazan, Deborah Ann Woll, Chris messina, Steeve Coogan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Elliot Gould, Paul Dano. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 1 hours, 44 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use).