In a good romantic comedy, the relationship at the center should feel as important and truthful as your own. You need to feel the pain when the characters are torn apart, the joy when they reunite, and accept wholly that-- despite the fact that these people are quite fictional-- it really matters if they get together in the end. But by adding a new layer of fiction and making one half of the central couple a creation of the other's imagination, Ruby Sparks diminishes its own stakes from the start, and nothing that happens in this breezy, ineffective rom-com does anything to improve that.
The fact that it stars real-life couple Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano makes the lack of romantic appeal all the stranger, an example of how a happy real-world couple can be uncompelling onscreen. But it was a challenge for either of them to lift up Kazan's own meandering screenplay, which makes too little of its tempting high-concept premise and settles into the dull, familiar rhythms of a relationship movie that's far less ambitious than this one should have been. As Ruby, the girl first created by novelist Calvin (Dano) while stuck in a rut of writer's block, Kazan navigates a tricky series of character shifts, first appearing to be nothing more than Calvin's dream girl and eventually developing as herself, all while Calvin has the power to change her entirely simply by writing more about her. But Ruby is also, deliberately, a cipher, and the more the story doggedly sticks to Calvin's point of view, the more she fades away.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, making their first film since Little Miss Sunshine, feel more comfortable on the margins of the story, surrounding Calvin and Ruby with supporting characters who are all more interesting. Chris Messina feels a little miscast as Calvin's meathead brother, the only other person who knows that Ruby started off as Calvin's fictional creation, but he makes the most of the role anyway, as the audience surrogate who both encourages Calvin to fiddle with Ruby's personality and understands, as a married man, that no dream girl stays perfect forever. The movie takes a pleasant detour halfway through as Calvin and Ruby visit his mom (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) at a hippie retreat in Big Sur, and while the whole section sets up character development that doesn't quite pay off, watching the large cast squabble around the dinner table is a treat. Add in Steve Coogan as a slimy author, Aasif Mandvi as Calvin's exasperated agent, Elliott Gould as his equally exasperated therapist, and Deborah Ann Woll as Calvin's confrontational ex, and the supporting cast is worth of a Little Miss Sunshine-style road trip movie of their own.
But before too long, it's back to Calvin and Ruby, as their story hits some terrific high notes-- their hazy courtship, her tentative steps at independence, a chaotic and dark finale-- but also sputters out over and over, leaving the audience feeling trapped in Calvin's bland white apartment and wondering how the zippy appeal of the premise led us down this familiar road. Kazan has written a strong and intriguing role for herself, but without the strength of story to carry that character somewhere quite as worthy.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich