Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oddball rom-com can't find its rhythm

Metaphysical, magical, creepy and charming all at once

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Some people bully. Some manipulate through passive-aggression, and others try to dominate their romantic partners by withholding sex, love, or any other source of ego affirmation.

The bottom line is: Romantic connections often bring out the hidden control freak in us because love demands a certain sense of disorder and surrender. Moreover, it desperately needs trust. And because some people just can't be vulnerable in the face of potential heartbreak, they bully and call it love.

That said, Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) seems like the complete opposite of a bully. A spindly and spectacled novelist who made it big when he still had zits, Calvin has been trying to repeat the success he had as a young writer, yet a decade hence, still stares at blank pages in his old manual typewriter.

Yes, there's a hint of old-school purity about Calvin -- and in his own Calvin-ist way, he sees his creative salvation as a matter of faith.

The only problem is, Calvin is running a little low on just about everything when we meet him -- most notably, human company. To pass the days, he takes his neurotic dog for walks and lies on the couch of his therapist, played with perfectly professional compassion by Elliott Gould.

When his shrink tells him to navigate his feelings of inadequacy by describing someone who loves his dog just as he is, Calvin has a breakthrough and comes up with a character he calls Ruby.

Obsessed by his new creation, Calvin writes through the days and nights with unbridled intensity. Ruby (Zoe Kazan, who also penned the script) is everything he's ever wanted in a partner: She's smart, bright, perky and just a little bit odd.

She's also a work of complete fiction, so when Calvin's character manifests in three concrete dimensions and starts speaking to him, the sane person in Calvin starts to panic.

Is Ruby real? And if she's flesh and blood, where did she come from? Can she remain in this dimension? Does it mean you're crazy if you want to kiss a figment of your imagination?

So many questions, and poor Calvin doesn't have a single answer. The only thing he can do is to make a decision to believe in Ruby, or not. So he chooses to believe, and soon after, we're watching our weirdo writer hang out with a woman he created.

The potential for icky is boundless, and making things even more unsettling is Calvin's ability to control her with little more than a few keystrokes, and a vibrant imagination.

Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are kind to our conflicted hero. Where they could have made Calvin a completely self-serving sex addict -- a scenario that may have been more believable -- they turn our hero into a self-deprecating, kind-hearted creative spirit who stops writing about Ruby the moment she becomes real.

He doesn't think he wants to control her, but once his female Pinocchio starts using her own flesh and blood to do her own thing, he can't help himself. He turns her into his love puppet, and slowly starts to loathe every fibre of his being.

It's a truly sad and creepy descent, but these particular filmmakers are uncannily skilled at making the grotesque somewhat palatable with ample amounts of quiet, contrived soulfulness.

The whole thing feels off-balance, but the teetering feeling lends Ruby Sparks a certain freshness because we're never too sure where the movie is going: Is this going to be a smarter version of Mannequin? A duller take on Splash? Or a touchy-feely take on Frankenstein?

It's a bit of all three, which means Ruby Sparks is a complete mess because it has no natural rhythm. Jerking gears between goofy comedy, romantic montage and metaphysical desperation, the only thing keeping the movie together is Paul Dano's perpetually slumped presence centre-frame.

The young actor can play creepy, sympathetic and charmingly goofy in the same breath, which makes Calvin a rather interesting character -- even if he's not entirely likable.

The rest of the cast also uses its combined skills to great effect, with veterans Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas proving how much humanity you can bring to a story in just a handful of scenes.

Had the script been a bit sharper around the metaphysical and symbolic edges, it may have been able to cut through the fog of responsibilities surrounding the creative act and human connection. As it is, Ruby Sparks is a confusing -- but sometimes comic -- stroll through pea soup.

-- Postmedia News

Other voices

Excerpts from reviews of Ruby Sparks:

Sneaks up on you with deep questions, discomfiting insights and more emotional punch than you may expect.

-- Rafer Guzman, Newsday

Ruby Sparks is a curveball delight, the work of serious-minded jokers.

-- Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

The meta-fiction concept of characters interacting with their creator is hardly original, but it's neatly packaged here by Kazan herself, who wrote the script for this clever little charmer.

-- Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail

Ruby Sparks is a film about the wonder of, and the limits of, magic. Believe and enjoy.

-- Tom Long, Detroit News

What starts off as a sunny daydream, a shot of whimsy and mild-mannered magical realism, turns into something more serious, and seriously reflective. Satisfyingly so.

-- Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer

Maybe it'll give you something to think about as you Facebook stalk that cute girl you just met for coffee.

-- Christy Lemire, Associated Press

-- Compiled by Shane Minkin

Movie review

Ruby Sparks

Starring Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano



103 minutes

Three out of five stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2012 D4

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