"Ruby Sparks," directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and featuring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould and Chris Messina, is a high-concept comedic romance with an element of magic, like "Midnight in Paris," writes Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald in this rave review. The film is playing...

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“She doesn’t know I wrote her,” says novelist Calvin (Paul Dano) to his brother Harry (Chris Messina), desperation in his voice. Calvin, a pale slip of a man who’s been fighting writer’s block, has a unique problem: As a writing exercise, he created a charming young woman named Ruby Sparks, who had pretty eyes and liked his dog. And then she (played by Zoe Kazan) turned up, in person, at his characterless white town house — a burst of color and, quite literally, a dream come true. She thinks she’s his girlfriend. He’s not sure if she’s real.

Sounds like a perfect romantic-comedy setup, no? But “Ruby Sparks,” written with great cleverness and wit by Kazan, is more ambitious than that. It’s a comedic romance, to be sure, and Dano and Kazan (an off-screen couple) have charming chemistry; they kiss sweetly, twirling together in a spinning office chair as if alone in the world. But it’s also a Pygmalion-like drama, in which a creator struggles to come to terms with his creation, and briefly a disturbing thriller, as a puppet master is horrified to discover the lengths to which he can manipulate his helpless puppet. (Ruby is, Calvin learns, eminently bendable: If he types that she speaks French, she starts speaking French — right there in his office.)

“Ruby Sparks” occasionally stumbles, just the smallest bit; there’s a sequence in the middle involving Annette Bening as Calvin’s hippie mother that seems ever-so-slightly out of place. But there are moments in this movie that are mind-bendingly funny, and that fill the viewer with the thrill of discovering great new talent. Kazan, who briefly sparkled in “Revolutionary Road” and “Me and Orson Welles,” has an enchanting airiness here. (We, like Calvin, aren’t quite certain that Ruby won’t just disappear in a puff of smoke.) Dano, reuniting with “Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, exudes both youth and weariness; he’s a writer who found initial success as a teenager, and now at 28 feels very old. In one scene, he holds Ruby’s face in his hands and stares at her, sadly, wanting to understand, but afraid of losing her.

Things shift more to the dramatic side in the movie’s final third, and you watch mesmerized; there’s no way to know where this wonderfully original film is going, except that you don’t want it to end. Like “Midnight in Paris,” another high-concept comedy that felt no need to explain its magic, “Ruby Sparks” floats along like a balloon in the sunshine, following its own rules — and it’s a joy.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com