March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Zoe Kazan scores double triumph as star and screenwriter of thoughtful romance

Friday, Aug. 17 — Authors are often advised to “write what you know.” In “Ruby Sparks,” depressed novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) takes that a step further: He writes what he wants to know, specifically a vivacious, high-spirited, sweet-natured ball of fire who idolizes Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. Most writers don’t get to see their creations spring to life until their books are adapted as plays or movies or TV mini-series. But thanks to some sort of otherworldly phenomenon, Calvin doesn’t need to wait very long at all to meet Ruby (Zoe Kazan), who leaps from his typewritten pages into his kitchen, his living room and, of course, his bed.

There’s a fantasy element in “Ruby Sparks,” but directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris don’t push it particularly hard. That turns out to be a smart choice.

The script is deliciously witty and well observed, yet it also addresses some provocative, even unsettling questions about the nature of relationships. Calvin realizes that, with a little typing, he can revise and reshape Ruby’s personality. When she gets moody, he can transform her into a mindlessly jolly party girl. When she needs a dash of sophistication, he can make her speak fluent French. But, Kazan asks us to consider what this ultimately says about the nature of love? While we have all had times when we’ve wanted to ease the suffering of someone we care about or turn off someone else’s bad attitude, what happens when someone is given major-league manipulative skills, as Calvin is?    

Despite the title, “Ruby” is very much Calvin’s story, and Dano (who was the breakout star of Dayton and Faris’ “Little Miss Sunshine”) is outstanding as the prematurely jaded Calvin, who became a literary sensation at the age of 19 and is now well on his way to has-been status a decade later.

In addition to giving a knockout performance that strikes some marvelous comic and poignant notes, Kazan also wrote the screenplay for “Ruby.” What could have easily registered as a vanity showcase instead becomes a double triumph. The movie scores as a comedy, as a love story and also as something more substantial and complex than the premise might suggest. Much of this comes from the fascinating interactions between Ruby and the initially mystified Calvin as they navigate an entirely unorthodox gauntlet of romance. (Kazan and Dano are a real-life couple, by the way.)

The stars are ably supported by hilarious turns from Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, as Calvin’s space-cadet of a mother and equally whacked-out stepfather, and Chris Messina, who finds many wonderful shades in Calvin’s brother, the type of guy who presents himself as a big shot but secretly suffers from shatteringly low self-esteem. Most romantic comedies begin evaporating from your memory the minute you exit the theater. Happily, “Ruby” provides plenty of laughs during its running time and considerable food for thought afterward.