It’s a familiar story: The writer’s blocked writer who can’t seem to recapture the success of his first work. In Ruby Sparks (directed by Little Miss Sunshine co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Zoe Kazan, who plays the role of Ruby), Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano, who also worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine) finds himself being honored for the ten year anniversary of his first and only novel, while simultaneously being chastised for not having written anything new apart from a handful of short stories.
As a wealthy, successful, yet failed writer, it only makes sense that Calvin goes to see his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould, who seems to embody this archetypal Jewish last name as no one else can) on a regular basis. Convinced he’ll never be able to write again, Dr. Rosenthal suggests a small writing assignment in which he imagines someone accepting Scotty (Calvin’s slightly neurotic dog, named, naturally, after F. Scott Fitzgerald) exactly as he is when he or she comes across them in the park (Griffith Park specifically, the main reason for L.A. having redeeming qualities). Already bearing a certain image in mind based on a girl he dreamed about, Calvin is surprisingly galvanized by the assignment, finding himself writing chapter after chapter about a girl he calls Ruby Sparks.
When Calvin tells Dr. Rosenthal that he fears he may be falling in love with his protagonist (perhaps a similar situation occurred with J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield or F. Scott Fitzgerald and Daisy Buchanan), Dr. Rosenthal is elated, though what he doesn’t realize is that the intensity of Calvin’s emotions makes Ruby spring off of the pages and into the kitchen of Calvin’s palatial home.
Convinced that Ruby is a delusion, Calvin asks his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), for counsel over the phone. Harry, irritated by Calvin’s all too common emotional breakdowns, tells him to go outside and meet with a friend and that, once he comes back into the house, Ruby will be gone. Calvin follows the instruction, though the plan is somewhat thwarted when Ruby forces herself onto the excursion. Instead of meeting a “friend” (as Calvin’s only social interactions are with Harry and Dr. Rosenthal), he chooses to call up a girl named Mabel (Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, who relishes playing parts with variations of the name “Maeby”), who threw herself at him earlier that week at his ten year anniversary party.
Upon fulfilling his rendezvous with Mabel, thinking, of course, that she won’t be able to see Ruby, Calvin is shocked and relieved to discover that Mabel can, in fact, see him–though Ruby is livid over his bizarre lothario ways. As he acclimates to the perverse idea that he has made his creation come to life and is in total control of her, he immediately stops seeing Dr. Rosenthal and tells only Harry the truth about Ruby, who finds Calvin’s ability to control a woman completely wasted on someone so mild-mannered. Nonetheless, Calvin makes Harry swear to keep the information to himself, and especially not to tell his overbearing mother (Annette Bening, in her usual blacked out role) or her husband (Antonio Banderas, in his usual blacked out role), who, mercifully, live hours away in Big Sur.
Harry’s secrecy, however, proves to be the least of Calvin’s problems as Ruby begins to pull away and develop her own personality. In a misguided attempt to keep her close, Calvin starts writing about her again, leading her to act clingy and sullen to a cartoonish degree. When he tries to make her act happy, the same extreme effect occurs, leading Calvin to realize he should never have tried to tamper with her free will. As the third act comes, Ruby attends a party with Calvin thrown by his agent, Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, lovable in anything, even whilst playing the douche), and ends up running into his ex-girlfriend, Lila (Deborah Ann Woll–yup, True Blood). As she calls him out on only being interested in having a relationship with himself, Ruby is playfully seduced into stripping down to her underwear by Langdon, who catches sight of her standing by the pool (on a separate note, scenes with pools never grow tiresome for me).
The tension between Ruby and Calvin escalates to the highest its ever been in the wake of this event, prompting Ruby to start packing her clothes once they get back to the sequestered house. At this point, Calvin has taken on a Mr. Hyde-like alter ego, willing to do whatever it takes to prove that Ruby belongs to him (Sookie Stackhouse style). As she tries to leave, he finally musters the courage to tell her that he can make her do anything she wants. Refusing to believe him, the drama builds up to perhaps one of the most awkward scenes in a film since Michael Cera eating out Kat Dennings in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, in which Ruby starts barking, speaking French and generally acting possessed.
Seeing what he’s done to her, Calvin has the epiphany that he must let her go (it’s all very the Genie in Aladdin) and learn to live without her if living with her means she’s going to be miserable. Ultimately, however, it feels like Ruby Sparks is trying to be all things to all viewers–it’s sort of like a cracked out version of Weird Science joined with Stranger Than Fiction. Perhaps, though, like Calvin and Ruby’s relationship, Kazan’s second go-around will be a bit more flawless.