‘Ruby Sparks’: Wet blanket

July 24, 2012


“Ruby Sparks” could be a tasty bit of magical realism in romantic-comedy form, the first produced screenplay by actress Zoe Kazan, who plays the title character. Except for one serious problem.

Directed by the “Little Miss Sunshine” team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Ruby Sparks” should be the charming tale of one man’s imagination made flesh. The man is a writer, Calvin Weir-Fields – but the problem with this movie is the casting of this central role. Calvin is played by Paul Dano, an actor who, with only a couple of exceptions, seems to give the same performance over and over again.

Here he plays Calvin, now in his late 20s, still celebrated as the author of a novel he wrote at 19. Hailed as the voice of his generation, he has been stuck behind a writer’s block ever since – a few short stories here and there, but no follow-up novel. His one relationship with a woman broke down because she was less in awe of him than he would have liked.

So he lives as a loner in a nice Hollywood Hills home and spends time talking to his shrink (Elliott Gould) and his brother (Chris Messina). But he finally has a breakthrough when his therapist offers a brief writing assignment for him: Write a single page about someone reacting to meeting Calvin’s needy little dog.

As it happens, Calvin has been dreaming about a girl he’s never met – and he dreams about her again, this time with her embracing the animal (though Calvin finds the pet rather annoying). He awakes in a creative firestorm and begins writing furiously. Before long, he’s got a stack of pages and, as he tells his therapist, he hates having to stop writing each day because he so enjoys spending the time with this fictional character.

His imagination apparently is better than he realized: He begins finding pieces of female clothing – mostly lingerie – in his house. And then one day he comes home to find the whole girl – he has named her Ruby Sparks – waiting for him in the flesh.

As played by Kazan, she is a bubbly young woman with a slightly gushy personality and an obvious affection for Calvin. At first he flees her, convinced that he’s gone made; but when she shows up at a lunch date he has made with a horny admirer (Alia Shawkat) and reacts jealously, he begins to take her seriously and launches what should be the perfect relationship. He also discovers that he can change her simply by rewriting her.

But Calvin isn’t easily satisfied – and, more to the point, he doesn’t want to have to work at the relationship. So when she starts to get bored or seeks outside friends, Calvin becomes both jealous and controlling. Ruby wants to embrace life; Calvin wants to encapsulate it, to seal himself off with Ruby in his own head, as it were.

Which seems to be Kazan’s point in the script: that Calvin ultimately has to surrender to the idea that the world at large is beyond his puppeteering powers. He may be able to control the worlds he creates in his books, but he will never be happy in his own life if he can’t let go and swing with whatever the day-to-day reality of his world throws his way.

Kazan – and the directors – don’t make a big deal out of how Calvin does what he does, or why this happens. It simply is: Now deal with it and move forward. And that’s the story, whether it’s Calvin’s increasingly fidgety control issues with Ruby or his inability to connect on any emotional level with his widowed mother (Annette Bening) and her new husband (a funny, loose Antonio Banderas).

The writing is witty and warm. The film itself has a casual, free-wheeling feel. But, as Robert Altman once said, 90 percent of directing is casting. And “Ruby Sparks” suffers from the crucial casting error of putting Paul Dano in the central role.

I’m not sure why Dano has become the It-boy of the indie world. He was fine as the vow-of-silence kid in “Little Miss Sunshine,” and as the blustery, seething brothers in “There Will Be Blood” – and even as a nerdy Maguffin in Tom Cruise’s “Knight & Day.” But Dano, who has the physique of a bobblehead doll or a thermometer (bulbously round and chinless head, stick body), goes all bland and remote when he’s cast in a central role – whether it was “Gigantic” or “The Extra Man” or, now, “Ruby Sparks.”

I understand why writers create roles like Calvin (or Brian in “Gigantic” or Louis in “The Extra Man”). The hapless loser (who eventually builds up the gumption to stand up for himself, instead of spending his life in a passive-aggressive funk) is a popular literary (and cinematic) conceit. But to play him requires an actor who can actually convince an audience that he’s capable of that transformation.

Usually, that means casting an actor who’s the opposite of the life-deflecting nerd at the beginning of the story. The acting comes not when he summons a power he didn’t know he had; it’s the part of the performance in which the actor must tamp down his natural charisma to play a character mired in his own ineffectiveness.

But Dano seemingly lacks any real charisma of his own; it’s not that he disappears into these roles but that these roles disappear when he steps into them. He’s a blank wall against which the effervescent Kazan (and everyone else) is forced to act.

So as delightful as many parts of “Ruby Sparks” are, it all comes down to a simple fact: that Paul Dano is not a leading man and pretty much spoils a movie for me that I otherwise liked. Perhaps someday he’ll convince me otherwise.

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