As always, spoilers.
Ruby Sparks is not what you would expect it to be.
Considering the marketing and the tone/look of the trailers, you might have been forgiven for expecting something akin to Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, or maybe even Bruce Almighty. That is, a comedy, perhaps with some dark humour and some serious situations. Perhaps the overused term “dramedy” might apply.
That is not what Ruby Sparks is. Ruby Sparks starts off around that territory, ventures into it tentatively, then rapidly goes off in a different direction, to a place that is far darker than you might have been expecting. The story of writer Calvin (Paul Dano) who literally imagines his perfect girl (Zoe Kazan) into existence is not one that I would describe primarily as a “comedy”.
But I still enjoyed it, perhaps far more than I would have if it was the “rom-com” it is being partially advertised as. Ruby Sparks has intelligence and thought behind it, some humorous moments and a fine cast. The two leads sparkle as the romantic pair, Dano as the lovestruck Woody Allen-type character, Kazan as the fantasy girl who is perfectly imperfect. Dano I just watched in Looper, a small, but similarly well-acted role, and he seems to be the kind of actor who just rarely has a bad performance.
The supporting cast, from Chris Messina as Calvin’s brother to Antonio Banderas as the new man in Calvin’s mothers life, shines bright with the limited time that they each get. Dayton and Faris have directed a simply shot, effective production, that picks simple locations and sets in order to let the crisp dialogue and nuanced performances do the work. Calvin admitting to his psychiatrist that he is falling in love with a girl he has simply written, Ruby and Calvin in the street when he realises she is real, the dinner table scene at Mort’s house, the climactic typewriter sequence, these are all examples of the vivid and emotional moments that Ruby Sparks contains.
The humour comes only in small doses, mostly in the first 40 or so minutes, especially the interaction between Calvin and his brother when determining that Ruby is real. It was these sections that got a lot of air time in the trailers, like Harry (the brother) imploring Calvin to take advantage of the situation for his own sexual gratification. But Ruby Sparks actually contains no sex scenes or even sexual dialogue of any notable kind. This is not Bruce Almighty, where one of Jim Carey’s first acts with omnipotent power was to make his wife’s breasts bigger. In fact, Ruby’s more open sexuality, when it is brought front and centre towards the end of the film, is something that seems to disgust Calvin to an extent, a reaction to his own sexual frustration perhaps.
Moving on, I’d like to discuss the main point of Ruby Sparks.
The central idea – bringing a whole person to life from a page – receives a very clear moral judgement in Ruby Sparks: doing so is an amazing miracle, but continued abuse of the power is a moral failing. Calvin is made to look undoubtedly as the bad guy as he controls Ruby’s life, and any moral discussion on the “rights” of a fictional character made real are quashed then and there.
Early on in the movie, in a dream sequence, the titular Ruby tells Calvin “Destroy your idols”. She’s referencing his decision to name his dog Scotty after F. Scott Fitzgerald, but her words become the key theme of the entire movie from that point. Ruby Sparks is about a man’s encounter with his ideal, and how that ideal is torn to pieces through his own actions and inactions.
From that point, Ruby Sparks is a battle about reality vs fantasy. Ruby is the dream girl for Calvin: outgoing, flirtatious, bubbly, “quirky” and somewhat damaged from her previous relationships – in that last respect, someone like him.
But it becomes clear through the course of the film that this ideal that Calvin has built up in his head is not what he wants at all. The girl he creates is a passing fancy. Her outgoingness creates jealously in Calvin, her quirks begin to grate, her flirtatious nature makes her someone that Calvin cannot control.
And that is the key issue. Calvin is a control freak, even when his creation is apparently his dream girl. He cannot help but try and “fix” Ruby when she starts to do things that displease him. This simply creates further problems, eventually resulting in a catastrophe.
The other big theme in the movie is the importance of reality in relationships. Calvin and Ruby’s initial love affair is a picture perfect thing, which falls apart when real life intervenes. Ruby Sparks is at pains to point out that nothing – not even love – is perfect and it requires effort to make it work. Calvin/Ruby are contrasted by three “real” relationships. Calvin’s brother has a wife and family that he adores, but he admits that she walked out on him for a time. Calvin’s mother has rearranged her entire life to be with a man drastically different to her first husband. And Calvin encounters a ex he had a bitter break-up with, who admonishes him for trying to control her life during their time together.
Those three relationships, all more real than the fantasy Calvin has concocted with Ruby, are what real life is. Calvin rejects them, the complications, the fights, the flaws in an attempt to create something that is perfect, but fails miserably in the doing of it. The mid-way point section, when Calvin and Ruby visit his mother and her new lover is the key point. Ruby interacts positively with Banderas’ “free-spirit” type character which accelerates Calvin’s feelings of jealously and social anxiety when his girlfriend shows any interest in someone other than him.
With Ruby beginning to exhibit traits that are not to his liking – like loneliness, a desire for relationships outside of romantic ones and, more childishly, declining opportunities for sex – his response is childish and tantrum-like, simply altering Ruby’s behaviour so she clings to him like glue. Again, his intentions are warped when Ruby becomes too dependent on him. He then simply turns her into a manic person filled with never ending happiness and again his “fix” is a bust. Calvin keeps trying to remedy the fictional character he has created, ignoring the possibility that the best solution would be to treat Ruby like a person and work at the relationship. And since Ruby is his creation and shares some of his traits (and has in her personality, some traits that he desires), in trying to fix her Calvin is trying to fix himself, and failing. When she tells Calvin she feels lonely and that he “has no friends”, he might as well be talking to a mirror. Calvin does not grow much through the course of the film, the point perhaps being that dealing only in the fantastical will not lead to great personal evolution.
This all leads to the extremely disturbing climax, when a revengeful Calvin reveals the reasons for Ruby’s existence and plays the part of a demented puppetmaster for a few astonishing minutes, making Ruby dance, act like a dog and declare her love for him without her consent. That was easily one of the most uncomfortable and insidious pieces of cinema I have seen in a long time, and put a cap on any pretensions Ruby Sparks has of being a romantic comedy. That scene was a power trip, pure and simple, the worst kind of power trip, the final nail in Calvin’s fantasy.
The ending, I actually didn’t like, given the dark direction Ruby Sparks took. In “freeing” Ruby, Calvin finds some catharsis for his despicable behaviour towards her, and also finds an end to the writer’s block that was plaguing him. He has a career again and some valuable life experience, while Ruby is free to fulfil her own destiny as a person, actual and whole. In meeting her again, in getting the chance for a “do-over”, we can have some hope that Calvin has exercised his personal demons, has realised that ideal love is a fiction he should not try and reach. But given his actions through the course of Ruby Sparks, I have my doubts. Better I would have thought for Calvin to only see Ruby from a distance, happy in a new life, with Calvin content to go his own way and try to find something real (though it was a good full circle moment for Calvin’s dog, only in his life so he can use the animal to try and meet people, to be the one to lead him back to Ruby).
It wouldn’t be my only problem. Ruby Sparks is a touch too long and the pacing is a bit off in parts. Scenes where we go into them knowing that we have to go from point A to B – let’s say, Calvin convincing his brother that Ruby is real – drag a bit as it takes a while to get there, to get inevitable, yet somewhat tedious, exposition and predictable dialogue out of the way. I’m willing to buy into the premise, I don’t need it painstakingly brought through that kind of introduction to the brother.
Those are minor complaints. Ruby Sparks is a well written, well acted and well directed project, that offers a meaningful look at the way love is depicted in modern society, how warped the quest for it can become, and how damaging it can inherently be. Fully recommended.