Sparks flying

Better than anything you imagined.

Better than anything you imagined.

Rated 4.0

In 1924, Noël Coward wrote his play The Vortex with the express purpose of making himself a star on the London stage. Is Zoe Kazan trying the same ploy with Ruby Sparks, hoping to make herself a movie star? Well, as Pauline Kael once said, nobody ever became a star in a flop movie—but if Ruby Sparks has even a modest success at the box office, things may work out as well for Kazan as they did for Coward.

We first glimpse Ruby Sparks before we know who she is, in a literal blinding flash. Sunlight over her shoulder dazzles us, makes her face indistinct under a flaming halo of tousled red hair. She speaks to us—or to whomever the camera represents—but her words are lost in the dazzle, and almost before we can hear what she says, she is gone.

Next we meet Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano). Calvin is 29 and a writer. At least he was once, when his first novel created a Catcher in the Rye-type sensation while he was still in his teens. Now, after 10 years of writer’s block, Calvin is looking like a one-hit wonder, plagued by when’s-your-next-book questions from impatient interviewers. We first see him staring with worry-knitted brows at a blank sheet of paper in his portable typewriter. Typewriter? Yes, this guy is that weird. This is perhaps a false note in the movie, but it’s used later for dramatic impact and to make a psychological point. Even so, while typewriters may have their retro charms, who under 45 has the patience to deal with those inefficient contraptions? It’s like finding a teenager who prefers his music played on an Edison cylinder talking machine.

As any writer knows, the only cure for writer’s block is to keep writing, and it takes Calvin’s psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) to give him an assignment that primes the pump: Write a one-page description of someone who likes your book. An encounter with a young woman in the park—whether real or imagined is left up to us—prompts Calvin to imagine such a character. Her name is Ruby Sparks, she’s an artist, she was born in Dayton, Ohio—the details flow from Calvin’s fingers through the clattering keys onto paper, until he falls asleep at his desk.

The next morning, Ruby (Kazan) is in Calvin’s kitchen making breakfast. “Missed you in bed last night,” she chirps. “Did you get a lot of writing done?” Calvin recognizes her, of course—how could he not?—and he leaps at once to the obvious conclusion: He’s lost his mind. But an awkward confrontation with a casual lunch date—“Excuse me, I’m Ruby, Calvin’s girlfriend; who are you?”—proves that he’s not the only one who sees her. Calvin confides in his brother Harry (Chris Messina), who decides this “Ruby” is a scammer who somehow got her hands on Calvin’s typescript.

But that theory collapses when Calvin types that Ruby speaks French—and immediately, downstairs and out of sight, Ruby starts chattering away like someone in a Truffaut movie. No doubt about it, Ruby Sparks is real, and Calvin really created her, his idea of the perfectly desirable young woman.

It soon becomes clear that, as the saying goes, true love never does run smooth, even when one lover is the whole-cloth creation of the other. Ruby, like all good characters, takes on a life of her own, and Calvin’s attempts to rewrite her back into line lead only to misery for them both—culminating in a scene of hilarious yet harrowing chaos as Ruby jerks and dances madly while her Gen Y Pygmalion hammers at the keys to prove himself her master.

In the end, inevitably, Calvin and Ruby must break free of each other, and Calvin must break out of his writer’s inertia. How this comes about leads to a sweetly satisfying—and satisfyingly sweet—conclusion.

The posters for Ruby Sparks proclaim, “From the directors of Little Miss Sunshine,” referring to the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The Dayton-Faris penchant for freewheeling quirkiness serves the material well, but it’s taking nothing away from the directors to point out that the person Ruby Sparks is really “from” is Zoe Kazan, its writer and star. And that’s as it should be for a movie about writing being written.