Movie stars and pop stars tend to be spring chickens, but if you think back on every drama or comedy you've ever seen in which the main character is a novelist, the vast majority of those characters have a fair amount of mileage on their tires. They're almost always worldly middle-aged professor types, the more jaded and dissolute the better. So it's a slight shock, in Ruby Sparks, to realize that Paul Dano, the tall, thin, charismatically droopy 28-year-old actor from Little Miss Sunshine (he was the sulky teenager who'd decided to stop talking) and There Will Be Blood (the pastor who has Daniel Plainview's number), is playing not just a novelist but a novelist whose most revered work is 10 years behind him.
A plausibility stretch? Not really, since Dano's Calvin Weir-Fields, who got famous for his whimsical first book, is very much a new and authentic archetype: an aging boy prodigy of the Jonathan Safran Foer/Joshua Ferris school. Dano, who still looks young enough to play a college student, is utterly convincing as a precociously delicate wordsmith who lives in a white-walled Los Angeles duplex and, for all his acclaim in the literary world, has never quite grown up.
That's a good thing, too, since Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy that takes off from a premise so fanciful it needs every bit of the freshness that Dano brings it. A recessive celebrity blocked by success, still reeling from the Love Relationship That Got Away, Calvin is on a downward spiral until he lands a new girlfriend: Ruby Sparks, a 26-year-old aspiring painter who is sexy, fascinating, and emotionally generous and available. In other words, perfect in every way. Ruby is played by newcomer Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film's screenplay, and Kazan, with her doe eyes, charmingly skewed smile, and brainy flirtatious manner, has the instant offbeat allure of Scarlett Johansson crossed with Victoria Jackson. Calvin and Ruby begin to see each other, and it all looks yummy. Only there's an odd reason she's so perfect: She's a character that he has written literally right on the page, while seated at his vintage Olympia manual typewriter. He made her up out of thin air (as an exercise devised by his shrink), and she's now come to life. Anything he writes, she'll do. But that's a problem.
Calvin's brother, Harry (Chris Messina), who learns Calvin's secret, keeps telling him to write Ruby with bigger breasts, and if Ruby Sparks had gone off in that direction, it might have been a bawdy rom-com slapstick bash. But the directorial duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, making their first film since Little Miss Sunshine, do something surprising: They stage the movie in such an understated, moonstruck way that they don't so much milk the laughs (though there are a sweet handful of them) as get you to believe in what you're seeing. Ruby Sparks flirts with preciousness and has less fun with its premise than it could have, but that's because it's actually a gently touching metaphorical drama about the real essence of love: not just falling for someone because you have "so much in common," but learning to adore the differences. B+