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Who is Ruby Sparks?

Part mystery, part love story, all entertaining

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Ruby Sparks, an adult fairy tale that leans more toward the Brothers Grimm than Mother Goose, is a late summer revelation. The film launches Zoe Kazan as Hollywood's newest double-threat: lead actress and screenwriter of one of the season's freshest conceits.

In a nice bit of irony, Kazan has crafted her own star turn as Ruby in a tale of an author who conjures the perfect woman--via his Smith Corona typewriter--in an is-she-or-isn't-she-real paradox. Equal parts Harvey and Pygmalion, with extra splashes of Annie Hall and Frankenstein, Kazan's recipe turns out to be quite original and negotiates the tricky topics of loneliness, commitment and even misogyny with intelligence and grace. In fact, Ruby Sparks is not unlike dancing on a rooftop: one moment romantic, the next dangerous as you waltz too close to the edge.

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Paul Dano--Kazan's real-life boyfriend--plays nice-guy Calvin, a Los Angeles writer who found early literary success but is stunted by his professional and personal blocks, due in large part to the recent death of his father and the dissolution of a five-year relationship. Lost in a cobweb of self-doubt, Calvin daydreams of being accepted on his own terms.

He imagines Ruby as an ideal girlfriend: quirky (but never to a fault), button-cute and an insatiable lover. Presuming that his figment may unlock his writing shackles, Calvin begins to type feverishly, filling pages with his Ruby Sparks fantasies.

In an expertly executed bit of silliness, presto, Ruby Sparks appears in Calvin's kitchen, car, bed, you name it. At first, audiences may assume that we've been down this well-traveled road before--scores of films have introduced imaginary friends as comic relief--but be forewarned: Ruby is anything but imaginary. In fact, she becomes the center of Calvin's life, instantly embraced by his family, which includes delicious cameos from Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as mother and stepfather.

The supporting cast features appearances from Elliott Gould (MASH), Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum), Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show).

Behind the lens are husband and wife Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in their first feature since 2006's Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine. They lay the foundation for a nice balance between a lighthearted fable and a complex morality play. Instead of pulling the mask off what first appears to be a picture-perfect relationship, the directing team slowly unravels the ties that bind us, discarding them like so much onion skin.

Great care is given to the movie's delicate resolution. Audiences may think they know where this story is headed, but the cast and crew produce something unexpectedly magical and reflective. It's satisfying stuff. My sense is that Ruby Sparks may enjoy steady box office success as positive word-of-mouth lures audiences in search of something refreshing, vivid and incisive.

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