"Ruby Sparks" is a curveball delight, the work of serious-minded jokers. It takes the premise of a hundred wish-fulfillment romantic comedies -- wounded young creative guy revitalized by pretty, effervescent kook -- and deconstructs it while delivering a smart, funny, challenging, dark but hopeful love story. What first seems derivative is an inspired switcheroo.
Calvin (Paul Dano) is a little cloud of tousled, charming gloom in sunny L.A. He wrote a bestseller in his teens, followed by 10 years of writer's block. His last relationship ended badly and he's not interested in a new one. People can't see the real him through the aura of his early fame and promise, he complains.
Then he writes about Ruby (Zoe Kazan), a girl he encountered in a dream. She miraculously appears beside him -- a daffy, delightful youth-movie clich radiating love and spontaneity. Fearing for his sanity, he freaks out hilariously. When his brother (Chris Messina) confirms that Ruby is a living, breathing person and not a hallucination, Calvin revels in his good fortune. But of course love makes a mess of everything. Like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime, Calvin gradually reverts to the needy, egocentric behavior that torpedoed his last romance.
While Ruby is a new arrival on this planet, she's a fast learner. She evolves a sense of curiosity about other people and an independent streak that rankles her creator. She presses for them to visit his New Age-y mom (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas), who welcome the dream girl with open arms. Malcontent Calvin, who doesn't groove to their free-love vibe, retreats to the tree house in a passive-aggressive sulk.
Back home he begins rewriting Ruby, trimming her autonomy, editing her memory, erasing her developing identity. With "Twilight Zone" logic, each revision opens up a fresh cascade of unintended consequences. Calvin's puppet-master tendencies lead him to a cruel episode in which he makes the object of his desire dance to his every whim. But perhaps overcontrolling Calvin can begin evolving, too.
Kazan and Dano, a couple in real life, play their parts with finesse, charm and energy. Their chemistry is ideal. When they're being adorable and devoted it warms the heart, and their sad episodes of distrust and anger are painful to behold.
Calvin isn't who we first take him to be; beneath his mild, daydreamy faade lurk pockets of unattractive selfishness. While capturing the writer's reticent inwardness Dano still manages to suggest the decency below the character's flaws. Kazan, who wrote the whip-smart script, is the perfect incarnation of sweet innocence until it's time to become more complicated. She's good at complicated, too.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine") give the film a fresh, cheery visual style and a confident momentum. They don't milk the laughs or oversell the heartache. There's not a scene that overstays its welcome. They're confident enough that the film never gives us an "Isn't this postmodern and hip?" wink. Which is pretty hip.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186