In this metafictional rom-com, Paul Dano plays a bestselling novelist named Calvin Weir-Fields, a onetime prodigy whose genius peaked with the epoch-defining book he published at age 19. In the decade since, he's wallowed in creative misery, unable to pen a follow-up and reeling from the breakup with his one and only girlfriend. At the urging of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins to peck out the details of a fantasy relationship with the literal woman of his dreams. He dubs her Ruby Sparks. She doesn't drive or own a computer. She enjoys zombie movies and dance clubs and spontaneous blowjobs. And she looks like Zoe Kazan, pretty much the walking definition of "pixieish."

Add all that up, and you've got yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl—only in this film, she wanders directly out of the guy's consciousness and into his car, his soullessly modern L.A. home and, eventually, his bed, leaving a trail of underwear behind her. "It's like that movie Harvey," Calvin says, trying to explain to his sports-agent brother (Chris Messina) how she crawled off the page and into the flesh, then cooked him dinner.

Actually, it's more like a Woody Allen remake of Weird Science. Admittedly, on paper, that's not a bad pitch. But Ruby Sparks, written by Kazan and directed by Little Miss Sunshine's Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, only grazes the potential of its premise. What should've been—and what Kazan probably wanted to be—a dig at the whole "dream girl" construction as a product of male insecurity quickly gives in to sentiment and convention. Sunshine's preciousness either endeared or repelled. It's hard to feel anything here, especially when one of the lead characters is a prematurely rich sad sack and the other is a plot device come to life. It doesn't help that Dano shuffles through the film wearing an expression suggesting either great intestinal discomfort or that an invisible bully is tormenting him with perpetual Wet Willies.

Ruby Sparks does have one striking scene toward the end hinting at its darker, unexplored corners. The film turns, for a brief instant, into something bordering on psychological horror. It's startling, disconcerting, and for Kazan, even a bit brave. But it's a fleeting moment of feeling in a film otherwise permeated with indifference. R.

Critic's Grade: B-

SEE IT: Ruby Sparks opens Friday at Fox Tower.