Offbeat to the point of absurdity, this bright and breezy indie rom-com requires a generous suspension of disbelief on the part of its audience.
Essentially it's about a once-lauded young writer who can no longer elicit glittering prose. Once he imagines his ideal girl, though, the creative juices return to him. And his fictional girl suddenly becomes real.
The film's writer, Zoe Kazan, who originally penned it for her co-star and real-life squeeze, Paul Dano, hails from considerable cinematic stock. Her grandfather, filmmaker Elia Kazan, was both legendary (On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden are all on his directorial resumé´) and controversial (he ratted on lefties in McCarthy-era Hollywood).
In addition, Zoe's parents, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, are Academy Award-nominated screenwriters (including for Kazan's Reversal of Fortune, whose origins lie in theatre.
Not surprisingly, then, Zoe Kazan is multi-talented. The dialogue she creates is snappy and hipster-esque. Which is understandable, given her infectiously cutesy wide-eyed persona. For the most part, she steals every scene she is in, which is most of them. Little wonder that it required another set of hands to direct both her and Dano, with this, her debut screenplay.
Enter Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris: the husband-and-wife team whose irresistible indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine scored four Oscar nominations, winning two (for Alan Arkin as best supporting actor, and best original screenplay). By the time it had run its course, the film had hit the coveted $US100 million mark at the global box office (from a modest budget of $US8 million).
Six years on, they've traded in the crowded Kombi van so central to their unexpected hit for the exact opposite. Here, we have a solitary lad named Calvin (Dano, seen before in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will be Blood), who lives in a bland, featureless apartment, while battling dreaded writer's block.
Inhabiting the role of the timid Calvin like a seasoned pro, Dano delivers sensitive and troubled well, as we have come to expect. The feisty, head-turning presence of Kazan as Ruby, though, ups the dramatic stakes considerably - as does the likeable but largely counterproductive input of Calvin's older, alpha brother, Harry (Messina). Thanks to this very watchable trio - and their chemistry onscreen - what might appear merely wacky and odd becomes authentic, even touching. Before you know it, you're believing Ruby is real as well.
It's painfully clear why Calvin needs a dream girl. He's spent a decade trying to follow up a best-selling debut. His ex is long gone. And aside from his shrink (Elliott Gould) and his loathsome agent (a razor-sharp Steve Coogan), he doesn't appear to have many friends. If any.
Inevitably, this modern twist on Pygmalion (and Frankenstein) has a lot to live up to, and requires significant narrative twists to keep its audience engaged. Ruby's evolving beyond the perfect girl on the page is interesting, if at times flawed. How will Calvin's novel end? Can the spell from page to perfection be broken? Eventually, both are answered, but not in an altogether satisfactory way.
Equally, while welcome, the appearances of the ever-reliable Annette Bening (as Calvin's hippie mother) and Antonio Banderas (as her Spanish lover) are not given sufficient time to develop beyond extended cameos.
Had Bening's role been beefed up, the narrative would be less reliant on the single gag that veers close to running aground as the third and final act looms.
Overall, though, it's great fun and charming. Kazan is a knockout onscreen - the mix of bright red hair and wide-eyed, other-worldliness is hypnotic - and Dano riffs off her nicely (hardly surprising, given their five-year-strong relationship). I do still wonder what might have been, had they cast a less familiar face in the role of Calvin. But that, to be fair, is born more out of curiosity than any great criticism for Dano.
Tonally, the directors infuse their sweet, unlikely love story with enough kooky heart to keep it enticing. Deftly handled all round, in fact.