August 07, 2012

MOVIES: Ruby Sparks (Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton, 2012)

Six years is a long time for most directors to go between movies, but that's how long it's been since Little Miss Sunshine. Now Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are finally back with a follow-up, Ruby Sparks.

As the movie opens, we meet Calvin (Paul Dano), who published a spectacularly successful novel as a 19-year-old high school dropout. But that was ten years ago, and aside from a few short stories, Calvin's had a severe case of writer's block.

A writing assignment from his therapist (Elliott Gould) proves unexpectedly inspiring, and Calvin finds himself churning out pages about his perfect girlfriend, whom he names Ruby Sparks. Then one morning Calvin wakes up, and there in the kitchen, cooking him breakfast, is Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the movie).

His natural reaction is to think he's going crazy, but when it turns out that other people can see Ruby, he's not sure what to do. He can control Ruby's behavior by adding to the pages he's written about her, but is hesitant to do ("I want to make her love me without making her love me"). But as Ruby goes on living, experiencing life that Calvin didn't write for her, she begins to change and have her own reactions to things, and the relationship doesn't always go where Calvin would like it to.

Kazan's screenplay is very smart, going for understatement and relative subtlety instead of broad laughs and rom-com cliches. She and Dano are both excellent here, and when they finally have the big confrontation that the movie is inevitably building to, it's a beautifully tense and painful scene to watch.

The supporting players are uniformly well cast: Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin's mother and stepfather, Chris Messian as his brother, Steve Coogan as a pompous rival author.

Very much worth seeing; a delightful surprise.

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