Ruby Sparks is built around the sort of on-the-nose metaphor that will likely piss off viewers who are wary of excess thematic contrivance. A film about the allure and folly of wanting your romantic partner to conform to your mental image of him or her, it basically turns its subtext into its premise: a twentysomething novelist, Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), suffering from long-term writer’s block after publishing an acclaimed novel at age 19, starts writing a story about his perfect woman – and all of a sudden finds that she’s come to life. What’s more, he can change anything about her by simply clacking out his desires on his typewriter. An ill-advised romantic adventure ensues.
It’s all a little too easy, and the film sometimes makes it worse by shooting even more fish in a barrel: an ex-girlfriend shows up to complain that “you weren’t in a relationship with me, you were in a relationship with your image of me”; Calvin fears that dating a real person would be doomed to failure because his celebrity will give any date preconceived notions. But there are some lovely subtleties too, such as Calvin’s touching disappointment that his newly crunchy-granola mother (Annette Bening) is no longer a sensible polo-shirt-wearer. Dano is lovely as a smart, insecure romantic, and the film is surprisingly well-directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine); I dug their thoughtful, agile camerawork, and the way they use the criss-crossing diagonal lines of Calvin’s loft apartment to seemingly trap him in his own pipe dream.
More importantly, Ruby Sparks actually doesn’t let itself off the hook in some crucial ways. It takes its conceit seriously and literally. This isn’t some Michel Gondry magical-realist doodle: Calvin’s fictional dream girl damn well really comes to life, with all the strangeness and astonishment and potential institutionalization that entails. And the film tries hard to spin out the logical implications of Calvin’s ability to change her fears, desires, and personality at will, which leads to a number of scenes both hilarious and disturbing as he frantically tries to fix his relationship using his imagination.
Ruby Sparks also has something to say about movies, and specifically its genre provenance. It’s the first film I’ve ever seen to consider and ultimately implode the “manic pixie dream girl” – the cliché of the quirky free spirit whose problems are various sorts of cute and charming. This is an actual fantasy that aims to expose the insidious hidden fantasy inside romantic dramedies the world over.
— Eugene Novikov