Romantic comedies aren't easy to make work. Frankly, most are written by screenwriters who don't know what they're talking about when it comes to women and relationships, or at least, are unsuccessful in putting what they know onto the page. So there are about a million of them that have absolutely no basis in reality, and it's the rare one, like ANNIE HALL, that comes across as genuine.
RUBY SPARKS is nowhere near ANNIE HALL's league, but at least it's aware of its limitations and feels written with a purpose. Instead of painting a portrait of a real woman with real problems, RUBY SPARKS becomes more of a metaphor for men's views on women and relationships. After all, the title character is simply a construct in the mind of Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a once-successful writer in a bit of a slump, relationship-wise as well as career-wise. His first novel is still beloved by many, but he can't seem to follow up, and his many visits to his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) can't seem to put him in a better place.
As an exercise, Dr. Rosenthal tells Calvin to write about his version of the ideal woman, and so Calvin gets to writing... and can't seem to stop. He fills pages with his idea of the perfect woman - Ruby Sparks, who is quirky, beautiful, loyal, and full of life. So when Ruby (Zoe Kazan) shows up in Calvin's apartment, unaware that she is a fictional character, behaving as if she's been a part of his life, Calvin isn't sure if she's the real thing or if he's having a psychotic break. But when she interacts with the outside world, Calvin realizes that he may have well created his perfect woman. His brother Harry (Chris Messina) is convinced that Calvin has gone off the deep end, until he meets her in reality.
The problem is that Ruby's a real person now, and not just some ideal, and when she starts behaving like one, Calvin can't cope. Should he go back to the page and make Ruby the way he wants her to be? Or should he allow her to exist as she is, a real person with all the conflicts, quirks, wishes and dreams that real people have, even if those dreams aren't the same as his?
Much of RUBY SPARKS is funny and charming, even if it feels like it forces its hand at times. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are very familiar with quirk, considering they directed LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay, is wonderful as Ruby - she's definitely making a statement with this movie about the temptations of fantasy versus stark reality when it comes to relationships. Still, there are times that the script feels, for lack of a better word, hipster. It's very quirky and sometimes too cute, especially when we meet Calvin and Harry's parents, played by Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as aging hippie-types who smoke weed all day when they aren't painting or building weird furniture.
Much of the movie struck me as full of "first world problems" - Calvin is quite well off, and his problems probably don't compare with real people struggling to make ends meet, but Paul Dano is very good regardless as the writer who can't seem to figure relationships out. He's had them before, of course, but they all ended badly, because the woman never quite added up of what he wanted that woman to be. So when Ruby comes along, the perfect woman for him, it's funny to watch him cope as she gradually comes out of his idyllic view and into a living, breathing person.
RUBY SPARKS acknowledges that relationships are about what each person brings into them, and not about what one person wants the other to be. Ruby doesn't fit in the box that Calvin's built for her, and in one very good sequence, Calvin tries, with his writing, to force her into that box. It's the best scene in the movie, at times hilarious, a little scary, and ultimately very illuminating and moving. There aren't many romantic comedies that are willing to pull aside the curtain and show the less savory aspects of relationships - most are surface gloss. And while RUBY SPARKS doesn't quite hit the goals it sets up for itself, it's still an enjoyable, bright movie.