There's a fine line between satire and the nasty snigger that marks so much of pop comedy these days — which is another way of saying that the corrosively funny takedown of child beauty pageants in the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine moved me to forgive (by a hair) its creepiest creation — Alan Arkin's heroin-addicted grandpa. Still, I wonder whether my 14-year-old, who has roared her way through that movie at least a dozen times, can tell the difference between sharp commentary and the juvie desire to shock.
Perhaps because they're working with patently sincere material in their new film, Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have dialed down the knee-jerk nose-thumbing, and it's mostly for the better. Ruby Sparks, a modestly sweet romantic comedy scripted by the actress and writer Zoe Kazan, stars Kazan's real-life partner, Paul Dano, as Calvin, a stalled novelist who's too shy, or too picky, or both, to find the lasting love he desperately wants.
Calvin is 29 years old, which is a blatant movie marker for "time to grow up." But how, when he's coasted for so long on the expiring celebrity of his first book? Calvin's more established pal (Chris Messina) loves his wife but is ambivalent about marriage, and Calvin's own standards are exacting to a fault. Nudged along by his long-suffering therapist (Elliott Gould), Calvin writes his dream girl into being — and lo, she materializes in his kitchen, stirring eggs.
Ruby (played by Kazan) looks like one of those quirky girl-women who dot the man-made pop landscape, a huge-eyed Raggedy Ann sprite looking fetchingly lost in Calvin's shirt. Before you know it the two are swimming underwater together, clutching one another through zombie film festivals, and all those things that lightly offbeat couples do to show they're lightly offbeat.
So far, so Zooey Deschanel. Written into life by a man, Ruby is the stuff of male fantasy, and in most mildly indie movies, that's the territory where she'd remain — kooky with a hint of wild, yet girlish and compliant when push comes to shove.
Except that both she and Calvin are written by a woman, and here's where Ruby Sparks veers forthrightly into beware-of-what-you-wish-for territory. Calvin likes it when Ruby whips off her panties at a dance club, but it irks him that she really digs the hippie parents — Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, both miscast and overacting miserably — who embarrass and irritate him. She otherwise makes a fine nuisance of herself by becoming her own person; Ruby may have broken Calvin's writer's block, but she's turning out to be trouble, and good for her.
Appalled, Calvin hits the typewriter and starts tweaking Ruby on the page. When he writes her kittenish, she turns horribly clingy. He goes into overdrive, and there follows a frighteningly funny scene in which he shows her just how many Rubies he can create by tossing off a few more lines of prose.
This doesn't go well, and soon enough the life-learning curve plops neatly into place, as it must in all movies aspiring to supersized box office. Life is not fiction; we must not seek to control others; we must appreciate our loved ones for who they are and aren't; and so on. You'd have to be under 30 to see any of this as strikingly original insight, but it bears repeating in an eternal-child culture that favors reflexive cursing and knowing yuks over the honest longing to make a connection stick.
Ruby Sparks is far from a landmark in the rickety pantheon of romantic comedy, and under the direction of Dayton and Faris it gnaws a little too hard on its magical-realist trickery. But it's great to see them help an emerging young writing talent like Kazan make her mark by by sweeping away male fantasies of pliant girls and replacing them with a desirable, flesh-and-blood woman. Faced with adulthood, will Calvin write another novel and find true love in the real world? See the movie — but it is surely a promising sign that he transitions to a laptop.