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'Ruby Sparks': An Indie gem with Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan

POSTED July 31, 2012 9:29 p.m.

"Ruby Sparks" is a clever riff on the ancient Pygmalion story. Here, instead of a sculptor, the protagonist is a blocked writer, whose lonely existence is transformed when the central character in the book he's working on suddenly comes to life. The movie is a glowing fantasy that approaches perfection in its character detail and its unlabored comic style -- and in the way it subtly develops dark themes of creativity and control as the story evolves.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, the writer. His first book was a critical hit (it's now a "classic"), but that was a while ago; he has yet to produce a follow-up. Calvin's life is romantically barren, but lately he's been seeing a girl in his dreams. He mentions this to his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould), and the shrink suggests that he start writing about her. So he does, naming his fictional creation Ruby Sparks. Then one day, Calvin discovers some odd things lying around his spacious apartment -- a bra, a thong -- and in the kitchen, he finds a cute, cheery girl making breakfast. It's Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). "I missed you in bed last night," she says.

Calvin rears back from this bizarre development. "I can't fall in love with a product of my imagination," he says. But then other people start acknowledging Ruby's presence and engaging her in conversation. (They all like her.) As months pass, Calvin's mother (Annette Bening) grows eager to meet his new girl. "I'm beginning to think she doesn't exist," Mom says.

Calvin is careful not to let Ruby know that she's a figment of his imagination and, more disturbingly, that he can mold her to his desires simply by going to his writing desk and tweaking her in his manuscript; type in a line about Ruby's speaking fluent French and suddenly she's doing just that. Calvin's initially skeptical brother (Chris Messina) is most impressed. "For men everywhere," he says, "tell me you're not gonna let that go to waste." But Calvin has no desire to change Ruby, at first. "She's perfect," he insists.

Naturally, she's not; Ruby is all too real. So Calvin finds himself repeatedly returning to his keyboard to recalibrate his new girlfriend. Too chatty? Just add a line. Too needy? Tap-tap-tap. This would seem to be a dream scenario, but Calvin is wracked by guilt; Ruby has no idea she's someone he created, and he can't bring himself to tell her.

The movie has a pictorial warmth (the work of cinematographer Matthew Libatique) and a cello-rich score that recall the 2006 film "Little Miss Sunshine," which, like this film, was directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. (This is only their second feature; they apparently make enough money shooting commercials to be picky about their film projects.) Dano and Kazan, a couple in real life, have a natural ease; and the script, which Kazan wrote, provides them with a number of emotionally complex and -- toward the end -- unsettling scenes.

There are also strong supporting performances -- by Bening, as the divorced hippy-dip mom, and Antonio Banderas, as her hearty new mate; by Deborah Ann Woll (of "True Blood"), making a lot out of a brief appearance as Calvin's resentful ex-girlfriend; and by Steve Coogan, as the skeezy older writer who "discovered" Calvin. (Is it just me, or has Coogan become too believable playing this sort of self-important character?)

But it's Kazan who emerges as a true star here. With her pixie grin and radiant sweetness, she could be the girl of anyone's dreams. Calvin can't believe that Ruby has been hiding in his head all this time. "I guess I was looking for you," she says. "It just took me a while to find you."

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