You discover you have the magical ability to create your own lover. How detailed will you be in customizing him or her? More importantly, when you complete the process, do you stop and let your lover develop as an individual with free will or do you play puppet master on an ongoing basis? Just how much of a control freak do you think you are?
Ruby Sparks, a romantic comedy/drama by Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, veers from the usual rom-com path to explore the issue of control. The film is erratic - fizzy in parts and startlingly cruel in others - but engaging, especially when dealing with the ethics of the situation. Whether it's a partner, son or daughter, friend or colleague, most people try to control others to one degree or another. Co-star and screenwriter Zoe Kazan puts that process in high relief.
The premise is trite in the extreme, but structurally sound. Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood) wrote a landmark novel at age 19. A decade later, he struggles with writer's block and indie-film mopey-itis. After his shrink (Elliott Gould) assigns him a one-page writing exercise (it took the therapist ten years to come up with this idea?), Calvin starts writing about Ruby Sparks (Kazan), a quirky redhead he met in the park, speculating on her personality.
A few days later he wakes to find Ruby in his home, exhibiting all the traits he typed. The stunned man tells his brother Harry (Chris Messina) about the situation. After the expected disbelief, Harry visits the house and meets Ruby, confirming she is not a hallucination. Calvin tests the otherworldy situation by typing new abilities for Ruby while Harry watches. She immediately exhibits those traits. So Calvin swears off writing any more about Ruby ... until she starts becoming more independent and - Egads! - gets along with his bohemian mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) better than he does. Reluctantly, Calvin heads for the typewriter, and we head for the startlingly cruel part of the story.
Don't come to Ruby Sparks expecting another Little Miss Sunshine. This film is thinner, mostly a two character piece, save for the visit to Calvin's mom's home, which briefly captures the "Sunshine" spirit. Paul Dano's Calvin is a difficult man, especially later in the story. Zoe Kazan (kin to legendary director Elia Kazan) is beguiling as Ruby. Prepare to wince at some of the behaviors she is forced to exhibit, though. The well-known supporting cast (which includes Steve Coogan as Calvin's agent) brightens the movie without stealing scenes. Chris Messina adds to the story as Calvin's concerned brother. He is less entertaining is scenes where Kazan paints him more crassly.
Ruby Sparks is entertaining and thought-provoking, with a satisfying wrap-up. Don't be surprised if, after the movie, you find yourself evaluating your efforts to control/refine those in your inner circle. You may decide it's your own behavior that needs a rewrite.