The Tuesday Zone: ‘Ruby Sparks’, or the Other Hipster Zoe(ey)

When I first saw the trailer for Ruby Sparks, I was interested yet apprehensive.  Basically, we see a writer that’s falling in love with a character he’s writing.  Then, presto-movie-magico, she’s real.  He ‘s baffled and in one scene someone tells him, “You can make her do anything you want.  For men everywhere, tell me you’re not gonna let that go to waste.”

So yeah, seems both like an interesting concept and a potentially sleazy movie.  So I went in not sure which way the movie would fall, although I was comforted by the fact that the actress who plays Ruby also wrote the screenplay.  Surely she wouldn’t write a movie that completely marginalizes the character she’s supposed to play, right?

In general, that assumption is correct.  Ruby Sparks is a fairly fascinating film, and in a lot of ways it’s like a companion piece to (500) Days of Summer.  How?  Well, both movies focus on a man that constructs a woman in his mind, but is doomed by his inability to understand her.  And both women are played by adorkable hipsters named Zoe(ey).

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Also, quirky indie movie scenes.

Plot Summary:  Calvin (Paul Dano) is a young novelist who hit it big in his late teens, but is now in a funk.  His psychiatrist suggests a writing exercise and Calvin writes a story with a girl.  He begins to dream about and falls in love with this girl he’s created, the eponymous Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan).  He constructs an entire backstory.  One day, he wakes up to find that Ruby has become a real person, no less his girlfriend.  He shows his brother Harry (Chris Messina) who is amazed, and the film follows Calvin as he lives with this woman he’s created out of thin air.

Again, this is a pretty neat concept, but it has risks.  First off, the idea that a woman is created by a man could lead into dangerous territory.  If Calvin followed the advice I quoted earlier about doing whatever he wants with Ruby, which comes from Harry, then we’d be pretty close to a Stockholm Syndrome/women-as-object scenario.  But the screenwriter, Zoe Kazan, is a lot more interested in using this strange plot for analytical purposes rather than as a cheap device.

So let’s go to the beginning and start from there.  We have Calvin, who’s a bit miserable because of his inability to write anything new.  He’s almost like those child stars that you always hear about, desperately wanting to rekindle their fame.  He lives in a white-washed apartment, trapped by his dull existence as he surfs in the dwindling wave of fame from his first novel.

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But when he starts writing about Ruby, he gains some momentum in his life.  He finally feels like he’s accomplishing something, but the problem is that Calvin’s only ever been in one serious relationship, and that was a while ago.  His brother, Harry, informs Calvin of his complete lack of knowledge in regards to women, and that the character he’s written won’t appeal to a romance novel’s target audience.  Calvin’s written a dream girl, and as Harry points out to him, “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real.”

But then, as if the universe really hates Harry, Ruby becomes real.  She shows up in Calvin’s house and introduces some color into his life.

Fox Searchlight

Calvin falls in love immediately, considering that he wrote her to function as his ultimate dream girl.  Harry notes that maybe Calvin doesn’t know everything about her, but Calvin insists that he does and that he won’t write another word about her.  The mechanics of Ruby’s existence are wisely never explained, but we do know that anything Calvin writes on the typewriter about her will become true.  So he’s trying to take the noble route.  Great!  Of course, nobility rarely lasts any longer than it takes for someone to face actual problems, and once Ruby starts feeling trapped by their suffocating relationship, he goes to the typewriter and makes her absolutely dependent.

He continually revises her so that she can be exactly who he wants, and if that disgusts you, well, it should.  Calvin is not made to be the perfect, flawless protagonist in this movie.   He’s controlling, selfish, and egotistical.  He’s outright rude to his mother because she’s not the same as when she raised him.  He doesn’t respect Ruby, either.  He’s in love with her, sure, but he doesn’t appreciate her as a full human being because he assumes she can exist on his love alone.  He’s baffled by her suggestion that he finds other friends.  “I have you.  I don’t need anyone else,” he tells her.  “That’s a lot of pressure,” she informs him.  He doesn’t really get it.

So in a pretty obvious way, this movie is about the way men construct women–both in their minds, like Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in (500), but also in fiction.  I think that’s the most interesting part of this film.  Women in movies tend to be constructed in whatever way is convenient to the story, and they’re forced to change who they might really be as a character in order to convenience the plot.  Ruby Sparks recognizes this and then confronts it.  Calvin realizes that he needs to free Ruby because any attempt to control her and change her is artificial and won’t work out for anyone.

Of course, the other message is obvious: you have to see someone for who they truly are, and not who you want them to be.  I wrote about this a lot in my article on (500) Days of Summer, and Ruby Sparks makes this abundantly clear, so I won’t hammer it in too much. But one scene that does reinforce the idea rather well is when Calvin bumps into his ex, Lila.  They dated for five years, but she left him after his father died.  She tries to explain to him why–he didn’t want help; he wouldn’t listen to her; etc.–but he shouts over her that she’s cold and heartless.  This scene gets rid of any illusions we might have had about Calvin.  He doesn’t get women.  He doesn’t get people.

There are gonna be some decent spoilers coming up, so if you wish to read on, then be prepared.

The climax of the film is when Calvin’s egotism and over-controlling take over.  He tells Ruby that he created her when she suggests leaving him.  He tells her that he has control over her entire existence, and proves it by practically torturing her for minutes.  He makes her bark like a dog and makes it impossible for her to leave the room.  He absolutely humiliates her, and once he’s done, he realizes he has to let her free.  He recognizes how horrible he’s been and that he can’t continue doing this to Ruby.  I lost any respect for him during this scene, but at least he recognized his cruelty and freed her.

But then the movie takes a bad turn, I think.  All of the sudden, Calvin finishes his book.  I get that; he freed Ruby and now he can write her because she’s her own person.  But he suddenly becomes a really decent guy, as if he’s taken a complete 180.  Then, at the end of the film, he runs into Ruby who doesn’t remember their previous experiences together.  They have a bit of an awkward chat, and Ruby says in that ever-so-playfully-meta way, “Can we start over?”

The implication is obvious: they’ll end up back together.  But why?  Calvin is an ass for the entire movie, and all of the sudden now he’s a great guy?  He absolutely humiliated her and treated her like an object.  We saw too much of that and not enough of the barely-implied transformation he goes through for this to be justified.  This ending is just a bit too sugary and is more about wish fulfillment than thematic consistency.

I did really enjoy Ruby Sparks, and I think it’s a film worth seeing because it’s well-acted, quite funny, and surprisingly daring.  Kazan is a pretty fantastic screenwriter and while she made a pretty great movie here, I’m disappointed with where she took it.  As a friend described it to me, “The ending is what I wanted. Not what I needed.”  He’s right.  I think this film was close to making a great statement about not just men who don’t understand women, but also fiction creators who don’t understand their characters.  Ultimately, I don’t know that Kazan understood her characters.  A great movie, this is, but not as great as it should have been.

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