Tell me if this sounds familiar.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is an awkward, affectionate writer moping through his late 20s. As a teen, he became a literary icon when he published his first novel, which sounds like the second coming of "The Catcher in the Rye" that every young writer attempts. He has spent the ensuing decade struggling to think of a follow-up and wincing every time someone calls him a "genius." He now spends most of his time alone or in therapy.

He's redeemed from his comfortable existential crisis only when he finds Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), his perfectly patient, perfectly quirky and unbelievably beautiful soul-mate-in-waiting. The two fall into a magical romance set to a great soundtrack, which helps poor Calvin out of his rut and rediscover everything he hoped to get out of life.

That's the story in "Ruby Sparks" -- sort of. You've probably seen one too many of these "manic pixie dream girl" comedies in the past few years, and sadly wondered why your own love life doesn't feel like an infinite playlist or several hundred days of summer. It seems Kazan had the same thought, and this film, which also marks her screenwriting debut, is her wickedly clever rebuttal. The twist here is that Ruby doesn't just seem like a dream girl -- she is one.

Inspired by a writing assignment from his therapist, Calvin creates Ruby, a companion with artistic ambitions, endearing hang-ups and all the right pop-culture preferences. When his businessman brother (Chris Messina) reads Calvin's pages of beaming description, he has a different take on Ruby: "This is bulls---."

That's true enough, until Calvin wakes up and finds Ruby making him pancakes -- apparently, another essential quality for his one true love. So after Calvin has a few people confirm that she is, somehow, real, he can throw himself into his own novelistic romance: The profound conversations, the wild sex, the make-out sessions in an arcade.

During this honeymoon period, "Ruby Sparks" is the most enjoyable metafiction-freakout since "Stranger Than Fiction," another great comedy about typewriter creations and literary cliches taking on a life of their own. But, also like that film, this grows darker and more complex than you expect. Since Calvin and Ruby's relationship is real, the perfect bliss only lasts so long before it's hampered by fights, insecurities and time spent apart. But Calvin knows that he can control everything about Ruby. If he can't write the perfect romance, he'll just keep trying to rewrite it.

This is the second feature from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directing team behind "Little Miss Sunshine." Compared to that film, "Ruby Sparks" is a much more interesting take on how cutesy quirks give way to deeper pains. Dano and Kazan are both excellent examples: It's compelling to watch their sunny dispositions shift into messier territory. The longer Ruby sticks around, the more she brings out the worst from Calvin's humble facade. Her appearance is never explained, so the film's focus stays in a middle ground between the hell of relationships and the hell of the creative process.

For both cases, it gets one basic idea right: It's hard to distinguish between acts of love, magic and insanity.




3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina

DIRECTORS: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

RATING: R for language including sexual references, and for some drug use.

THE LOWDOWN: A struggling novelist starts writing about his perfect girl, who comes to life.