Written by actress Zoe Kazan for her and her boyfriend, Paul Dano, Ruby Sparks is a fairly engaging parable about the crap men project on their wives and girlfriends, the sort of controlling fantasies that wreak havoc on a woman’s sense of self. What makes it different from romantic dramas in which women finally scream, “I don’t know who I am anymore — only what you want me to be!” is that the woman really did spring fully formed from the man’s unconscious.
Dano plays Calvin, a novelist who had a generation-defining, Catcher in the Rye–type hit at age 19 and has barely produced anything in the decade since. In spite of his fame, he’s unable to meet that special girl. He dreams of her, though. She comes out of the sunlight in a short, swishy dress, beckoning to him, and when he types his vision on his old typewriter something strange happens. His dog shows up carrying a woman’s shoe. Toiletries appear in his bathroom. Finally comes the woman, whom he names: Ruby Sparks.
Kazan’s Ruby is lithe and baby-faced with round, adoring blue eyes. She’s not an old-fashioned Stepford sex doll, she’s a new-fashioned “manic pixie dream girl.” She’s exactly what Cal wants, but when she begins to want something — her own friends and career — and he thinks she’s leaving him, he types, “Ruby is miserable without Cal,” and lo, she comes crawling back. Ruby Sparks builds to a tour-de-force danse macabre, the horror coming not just from Ruby’s marionette-like turns to the tune of the magic typewriter but Cal’s demonic will. He’s stricken, ashamed of his godlike control over Ruby, but, like most insecure guys, he can’t resist the exercise of power.
It’s a great metaphor — but not a great movie. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) direct in a drably naturalistic style, and the script is thin. It’s a thesis film, with one joke and one variation: an exuberant Annette Bening as Cal’s mom, who lives in a rustic Big Sur dream house with her new mate (a hilarious Antonio Banderas), for whom she has altered her lifestyle and personality. Ruby Sparks might have been more fun if Cal were written to be expansive instead of a worrywart in the middle-aged Matthew Broderick mode. Is Dano losing his nerve? His dullish Cal doesn’t strike me as someone who could pen his generation’s Catcher in the Rye. He’s more like a mopey wannabe screenwriter.