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After watching “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood,” I have come to associate actor Paul Dano with sulky, conniving characters.
When I saw Dano’s took on the cute, awkward romantic lead of “Ruby Sparks” — also directed by “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — I was immediately hooked. Therefore, I had to see if the supernaturally smooth-faced guy could shake off his creepy baggage. He did!
Better yet, Dano’s lesser-known pint-sized co-star, Zoe Kazan, sprinkles oodles of charm on the whimsical rom-com.
And surprisingly, “Sparks” is incredibly self-aware screenplay hits some terrifically disturbing notes too. “Ruby Sparks” is a real gem.
The “Ruby Sparks” protagonist is the grown-up has-been teen novelist sensation Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano). Calvin has been seeing deadpan shrink, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould), because he is shy, suffering writer’s block and desperate to find a new friend, preferably a girlfriend. One day, Dr. Rosenthal instructs Calvin to write a story, even a bad story, to clear his funk.
So, Calvin writes down a recurring dream he’s been having about a quirky, quick-witted girl — Ruby Sparks (Kazan). While Ruby’s made-up, Calvin adores her. While Dr. Rosenthal is happy to see Calvin ticking, Calvin’s macho brother, Harry (Chris Messina) is concerned.
Calvin keeps up his fanciful ardors, and magically enough, an actual real-life Ruby appears at his home one morning. At first, Calvin is stoked to find the fictionalized love of his life exists. But, when the couple endures rocky episodes, Calvin is tempted to alter Ruby with the typewriter in which he wrote her into being.
Dano converts his typically whiny persona into a vulnerable, loveable Calvin. Calvin begins as prodigy, but Dano initially reigns in his cockiness and festering passive-aggressive snobbery. Dano is the unashamed loser — he openly hugs teddy bears and swoons over imaginary girlfriends. How cute is that? You cannot help but feel for Calvin.
Once Dano grabs you with Calvin’s sweet side though, he slowly unveils the character’s sinister potential. Kazan, who plays Ruby, is incredibly human for a written girl. Clever as her lines are, Kazan punctuates them with believable warmth. Whether she’s giving a kind, reassuring look or jaded sigh, Kazan’s facial expressions endow Ruby with that vital, wordless means of communication, making her fickle literary existence doubly tragic.
Apart from showcasing great performances, “Ruby Sparks” updates the Pygmalion myth. Where the Greek legend closes with an enraptured Pygmalion embracing his magically come-to-life sculpture, “Ruby Sparks” continues the relationship between the male creator and his art-turned-woman soulmate. Despite its upbeat vibes, “Sparks” delves into the gristly, questionable ethics of such a romance. Unlike Pygmalion, who falls for his statue’s gorgeous appearance, Calvin falls for his character’s weird personality. If Pygmalion sculpting an ideal female body is questionable, Calvin writing Ruby’s soul is much grimier.
A plucky score injects comedy into the episodes where Calvin rewrites Ruby, yet fails to sugarcoat his icky, soul-destroying moves. “Ruby Sparks’” dark side really enthralls.
All in all, “Ruby Sparks” is a sweet romance underpinned with unexpected, but poignant, melancholy. I give it an A+.
With a running time of 104 minutes, “Ruby Sparks” is rated R for language, including some sexual references and drug use. “Ruby Sparks” is available for rent via Redbox kiosks.
Heather Foster is a senior at the University of Florida.