Unpleasant in ways it intends and some it doesn’t, Ruby Sparks is a misogynist fantasy written and co-directed by women. In her first produced screenplay, Zoe Kazan casts long-term boyfriend Paul Dano as a washed-up wunderkind novelist, struggling to follow up his generation-defining first book a decade after the fact. Part of his problem, married brother Chris Messina counsels, is that Dano doesn’t understand women, but he gets a unique opportunity to workshop his relationship skills when the female character he’s writing suddenly appears in his foyer. Ruby (Kazan) doesn’t know she’s not real, even though her inner life exists only to the extent Dano has put it down on paper, but as their relationship deepens, she starts to break free of the page, a development Dano isn’t sure he’s ready to sign off on.
There’s a powerful undercurrent to Kazan’s fable about the way expectations condition romantic relationships, and the way we subtly and sometimes forcefully rewrite our partners. But directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who’ve taken their time choosing a follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, don’t key into the material’s more twisted aspects. Dano’s sunny white split-level feels like the wrong setting for a story about confinement, especially as Dano’s ability to control Kazan’s actions with the press of a few typewriter keys comes to mimic the tyranny of an abusive relationship.
It’s a credit to Ruby Sparks that it doesn’t shy away entirely from the darker aspects of its twisted tale, culminating in a creeped-out scene where Dano brutalizes his quasi-dream girl without getting up from behind his writing desk. But the movie doesn’t go as far as it needs to, or even as far as it thinks it does. It feels half-realized, lacking either conviction or nerve — an intriguing, even noble, failure, but a failure nonetheless.