Ruby Sparks takes an age-old high-concept romantic comedy idea—writer falls in love with the character he’s creating, who then springs to life—and works a series of fascinating, unexpected, and haunting variations on it. Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay, also plays the title character. Ruby emerges full-blown from the manuscript of Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), who published a prodigiously successful first novel when he was 20 and, with the exception of a few short stories, has been stymied ever since.

Working with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (a married couple who made Little Miss Sunshine together), Kazan and Dano triumph in a beautifully understated portrayal of the horrendously isolated condition of the blocked writer—the person who never does anything because he really should be writing, and has nothing to write about because he never does anything.

Calvin performs his useless labors on an Olympia electric typewriter and lives alone in the Hollywood Hills in a sterile modernist house his early success bought him. His social life is limited to his shrink (a charming Elliott Gould, now, my God, 73 years old) and his high-energy brother Harry (the delightful Chris Messina), who can’t understand his refusal to sleep with the starstruck young women who come up to him at lectures and book readings.

One night, after just such a lecture, Calvin has a dream in which he talks to a redheaded artist whose face is hidden from him by dappled sunlight. He wakes up in a state of high-pitched excitement and begins writing with passion for the first time in ages. After he has accumulated dozens of pages detailing the life and history of this dream woman, he shows the manuscript to his brother, who scoffs at the idealized portrait of womanhood

Calvin has drawn in Ruby Sparks.

Harry is wrong, though, because when Ruby simply emerges from Calvin’s kitchen and offers to walk the dog, she is fully realized—lively and funny and interesting, with all kinds of jagged edges. And she is no dream. Calvin may have created her, but Ruby is a living, breathing person. And though she might have been designed to be his girlfriend, after a blissful first few weeks it becomes clear that being his girlfriend is not enough for her—just as it would not be enough for anyone real.

For Calvin, the arrival of the perfect woman turns out to be just another reason for him to express dissatisfaction and neediness in equal measure. Dano’s uncompromising work as the silent brother in Little Miss Sunshine and the manipulative young evangelist in There Will Be Blood displayed genuine fearlessness. And he shows it again here, as the sadness we feel at Calvin’s isolation and the pleasure we share at his discovery of Ruby begin to give way to something deeper and darker.

What makes this movie so remarkable is its shifts in tone and spirit, from comedy to character study to romance to family drama to melodrama. That kind of tonal complexity would have been impermissible had Ruby Sparks been a big-budget

Hollywood production with Katherine Heigl and Zac Efron—something distressingly easy to imagine, given the juiciness of its premise.

And that, in turn, says something about the careers of the directors, Dayton and Ferris. They hit critical and box-office gold with Little Miss Sunshine six years ago, but haven’t made anything since—precisely because they did not want to make romantic comedies with Katherine Heigl and Zac Efron. They have a defiantly small-scale and intimate sensibility, and a visual style that is deliberately unpolished. The lack of gloss may keep Ruby Sparks from winning a large audience, but as is the case with Bernie—the other exceptional American movie this year—it will come as a thrilling surprise to those who do seek it out and surrender to it.

Zoe Kazan has played a few waify types in movies and oddball roles in theater before, and has had a play produced in New York. Her acting and writing here represent the second annunciation of a major American talent this year, after Lena Dunham’s spectacular work in and on HBO’s series Girls. Like Dunham, she is painfully young (28 to Dunham’s 26) and has something of the same mature and unsentimental perspective on the behavior of her own generation.

Kazan’s father, Nicholas, wrote and directed a terrific post-Fatal Attraction thriller in 1993 called Dream Lover (interesting title in light of Ruby Sparks). Her grandfather, Elia, was the most famous American theater and film director of the 1950s, and later the author of the staggering A Life, perhaps the best American show-business memoir of the 20th century. She has done the family name proud.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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