Ruby Sparks

(Reviewed July 25, 2012, by James Dawson)

The word-made-flesh premise of "Ruby Sparks" is at least as old as a 1960 episode of "The Twilight Zone" titled "A World of His Own," in which a playwright creates his ideal woman by dictating her description on a tape recorder. The young protagonist of "Ruby Sparks" uses an anachronistic typewriter, but the result is the same.

Novelist Calvin (Paul Dano) has been suffering writer's block since his first book became a bestseller 10 years ago. After his therapist (Elliott Gould) convinces him to try putting anything on paper, even if it's bad, Calvin writes in loving detail about an indie-quirky ingenue named Ruby Sparks. The next morning, he finds the living embodiment of Ruby (Zoe Kazan) cooking breakfast in his kitchen.

That wouldn't have been a bad set-up for an offbeat romance, but the screenplay (by Kazan) goes wrong in nearly every way. It's not light enough to be consistently fun, but not smart enough to be genuinely thoughtful. "Little Miss Sunshine"'s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct the proceedings without enough finesse to make it silly or enough sentiment to make it tragic. And a bizarrely inappropriate symphonic score only adds to the confusion.

Thinking he must be imagining Ruby, Calvin hastily sets up a lunch date with another girl. That's presumably so he can cleanse his mental palate with someone he knows isn't a fantasy...but wouldn't simply asking a random stranger right away if he can see Ruby have been easier?

Once Calvin knows Ruby is real, he can't resist sharing the secret of her origin with his obnoxious brother Harry (Chris Messina). The complete opposite of the shy and insecure Calvin, the loud and crude Harry comes off like a TV-sitcom man-child stereotype. Disbelieving at first, Harry becomes a believer when Calvin tweaks Ruby by typing more character traits that she instantly manifests. Voila, she can speak French!

Displaying a quirky-cute and disengenous Zooey Deschanel disposition, Kazan is fun to watch as the adoring, playful and innocent Ruby. Her orange-red hair, blue eyes and outfits such as a yellow dress with purple stockings make her literally and figuratively the most colorful thing about the movie.

Unfortunately, the magic-realism implications of her situation never are addressed. As a fiction writer, Calvin certainly would have enough imagination to wonder what would happen if he typed "Ruby can cure cancer, solve world hunger and create everlasting world peace." Or even something as simple as "Ruby is the world's greatest casino blackjack player."

An unnecessary segment that plays like padding takes everyone for a weekend stay at the storybook-rustic Big Sur home of Calvin's hippie-throwback mother Gertrude (Annette Bening) and her artist-eccentric new husband Mort (Antonio Banderas). The place does have a great funhouse-wavy brick fireplace and a pretty cool treehouse, though.

The story takes a regrettably dark turn when Ruby attempts to forge an identity beyond what's on the page. Calvin's reaction is so disturbingly inappropriate it belongs in a bad horror flick. Worst of all, a misguided twist ending -- which echoes better movies ranging from "Heaven Can Wait" to "(500) Days of Summer" -- makes absolutely no sense.

"Ruby Sparks" plays like a half-baked creative-writing exercise from an imaginative but easily distracted 10th-grader. What's too bad is that it may have been more than just a daydream doodle with a few more drafts.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D