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Ruby Sparks (2012)

Drama Rated PG-13

Clever, but not clever enough to make its central conceit work.

Written by star Zoe Kazan and directed by the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks stars Paul Dano as literary wonderboy Calvin Weir-Fields. Ten years after his sensational debut, Calvin is mired in an old-fashioned case of writer’s block. Told by his shrink to write about a girl who has repeatedly appeared in his dreams, Calvin does, and miraculously she appears in real life (played by Kazan).

Kazan means for this to be an exploration of the destructive desire for control in a relationship, and conceptually it’s an intriguing idea. Afraid that Ruby will leave him, Calvin makes an edit to his text that turns her into a clinging nightmare. Tired of that, he makes another tweak that converts her into a giggly spaz. He just can’t get the formula right.

Neither can the movie. Tonally, Ruby Sparks is all over the map, from broad physical comedy (not Dano’s strength) to serious relationship angst to a Meet the Parents-style detour when Ruby is introduced to Calvin’s mother and stepdad (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, trying mightily). There is even a climactic sequence, in which Calvin takes his frustrations out on Ruby, that plays like some sort of existential nightmare.

Ruby Sparks would have been best served if the filmmakers had picked one of these lanes (I think Dano would have been a good fit for the horror angle). As it is, there are unfortunate detours, lengthy lulls and bland performances by two usually reliable scene stealers (Chris Messina as Calvin’s brother and Steve Coogan as his mentor). There’s a spark of an idea here, but that’s it.