It's a good thing not to know where a film is going - we need surprises, we need to be spun around a few times - and Ruby Sparks, which is about a writer and his muse, but then becomes more about the muse and her writer, is happily just such a film. What starts off as a sunny daydream, a shot of whimsy and mild-mannered magical realism, turns into something more serious, and seriously reflective. Satisfyingly so.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband and wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine, from a script by Zoe Kazan - who also stars - Ruby Sparks has many of the trappings of a typical romantic comedy. But then the trappings turn darker, as the nature of relationships gets looked into, poked, and prodded - what one partner brings in terms of expectations, trying to define the other without necessarily taking into account who that person might really be.
That is, if that person exists at all.
That's the Pygmalion-esque premise, which revolves around Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a novelist who won fame and fortune with his first book, published when he was 19. Struggling to follow up his best-selling debut for 10 years now, he sits down at his typewriter and taps out a paragraph about a girl named Ruby Sparks.
Next thing he knows, Calvin is walking his dog and runs into a girl. They have an awkwardly charming, or charmingly awkward, conversation about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and art, and stuff.
Her name? Ruby Sparks.
Calvin, who has been struggling with writer's block, with self-doubt and self-loathing, thinks he's losing it. But the more he types - encouraged to do so by his rumpled therapist (Elliott Gould) - the more real Ruby Sparks becomes.
So real, in fact, that she has moved into Calvin's sleek, all-angles L.A. house, where she cooks and makes love and is happy to finally meet Calvin's brother, Harry (Chris Messina). Yes, she is not just a figment of Calvin's imagination after all, even though there's a direct correlation between what he types on his sleek Olympic De Luxe and what Ruby does. If you've seen the trailer, you know that as soon as Calvin taps out the words she speaks French, Ruby starts speaking French, fluently.
Inspired by the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, by the spirit (and style) of the French New Wave, and maybe some kooky vintage Hollywood fantasies (Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid? I Married a Witch?), the movie pulls off a deft balancing act. On one level, it's a larky love story. On another, it's the story of a guy so steeped in his own angst that it's impossible to let anyone into his world. And it's the story of a girl who gets buffeted - like a passenger on a plane that has hit turbulence - by his inability to understand who she is, and what she wants.
Kazan and Dano, a couple in real life, walk a fine line here, bringing emotional truth to their scenes together, and apart, even as they execute Ruby Sparks' increasingly unreal scenarios. Messina is the grounded Everyguy observer; Antonio Banderas and Annette Bening are winningly wacky as Calvin's back-to-nature Big Sur parentals, and Steve Coogan brings his acidic wit and faux sincerity to the role of a fellow author, at once imperious and insecure.
If the similarly charming (500) Days of Summer ran a couple's relationship through a time machine of ups and downs, good days and bad, Ruby Sparks examines its relationship from a different perspective - the perspective of imagination, of art, of dreams.
And like a dream, Ruby Sparks makes perfect sense, even when it doesn't.
Playing at: Ritz East and Rave Motion Pictures/NJ
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.