The Young Vivacious Woman Who Fixes Everything That's Wrong with the Heart and Soul of the Leading Man has been around for a long time. She's a part of cinema history. And even though intelligent audiences understand that she's an enduring "type," even though they realize that she's nothing more than a kind of science fiction, even though it's all a little Weird Science and a lot of wrong-headedly sexist to be as fixated on her as we are, we the people still respond to her crinkly charms. In her currently trending incarnation she's what film critic Nathan Rabin calls the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." She's Zooey Deschanel, she's Natalie Portman, she's Zooey Deschanel. And I know I just said Zooey Deschanel twice. That's how well her characters fit in that box, ordering tomato soup delivery with her phone and strumming a ukulele and, well, pick an annoyingly adorable activity -- she's done it. And now it's Zoe Kazan's turn. Expectant parents, are you paying attention? If you want to save your female fetus from this fate, lay off the "Z" names. Unless it's Zardoz, then go right ahead.
Literary genius Calvin (Paul Dano), his very name evoking sexlessness, stern religious rigidity and pencil-necked geekdom, is in need of inspiration for his second novel, preferably one that would confirm the Salinger-like, zeitgeist-grabbing fame of his debut. Calvin's brother (Chris Messina) thinks he just needs to get laid and his therapist (Elliot Gould) thinks he needs to feel worthy, so Calvin sits down and writes about a girl he dreamed of named Ruby, accidentally manifesting her out of thin air and emotionally immature imagination. With Ruby, what the predicate says, she does: whether it's singing old-timey songs while cooking Calvin dinner; painting his portrait and loving oral sex; responding with blithe, sassy, unconcern regarding her ignorance of literary history; or riding a cute bike around town while wearing skirts with tights. If he chooses to write her as French, she magically begins speaking French. And Calvin conjures up all of this on a vintage electric typewriter, lest there be any doubt in your mind that he might not be an affected pain in the ass.
But that's where the whole thing departs from expectation, sort of, because while this film was directed by Little Miss Sunshine's Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, which might lead you to expect even more cutesy cuteness coming down the third act road, it was written by Kazan herself, whose agenda here as star and screenwriter seems to be eating the cake and having it too, commenting on the ways men control women while still giving in to it just a little. So Ruby might push Calvin toward his better self like a good stereotype, but not before dismantling the mechanisms that created her by taking control of the machine and turning herself into a kind of short-circuiting love-bot that can never attain perpetual motion. It's a nice little trick and she's talented at pulling it off, just don't expect it to really crash and burn all Riot Grrl-style or anything. This is still Hollywood, after all.