Ruby Sparks

August 17, 2012

Calvin (Paul Dano), is an author who has yet to properly follow up his breakout first novel, published when he was only 19.  He has, as these things usually go, a significant case of writer’s block compounded (or because of) his significant self doubt.  He sees a therapist (Elliot Gould), where he clutches a plush dog toy and calls his ex-girlfriend a ‘bitch’ and complains about a lack of inspiration.  He’s instructed to write a very bad one-page story about the kind of person who might like his dysfunctional dog Scottie and bring it back to the next session.  In the process of attempting to write he manages to hold onto a vision of a girl and write it down.  The character’s name is Ruby Sparks, and she will eventually materialize in the form of Zoe Kazan.

The trailers promised – and based on some brief skimming of reviews, others seemed to have found – a light indie romantic fantasy, but I found it to be the opposite.  The screenplay, by Kazan, has an understanding of a certain type of male (verging on cliché though Calvin may be) and his perception of love and women.  Authors are a nice go-to when writers want a character to be narcissistic and anti-social, and a successful one nicely does away with the question of financially supporting such behaviour.  Calvin feels poorly treated by the world, from mentions of his father’s disapproval to his perception of his ex-girlfriend’s cruelty, to the dog he got for therapy embarrassing him by urinating like a female.  Early success has left him in a state of suspended adolescence.  The question of his quality as a writer (always difficult to portray in films) is brought into question as soon as he starts writing his novel about Ruby, which is remarkably one-dimensional.  She’s 26 years old; she left her hometown at a young age and just moves from place to place, presumably on her charm, her last boyfriend was 49 and the one before that was an alcoholic, and of course that whole time she was just waiting for the right person, who happens to be Calvin.  If this sounds like a checklist of characteristics of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then you’d be right.  He’s even called out on this by his brother Harry (Chris Messina), who sagely informs him that he doesn’t know women and can’t write them.

It’s not hard to imagine a degree of frustration with the types of parts written for women that I’m sure Kazan has run across.  The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope has been around long before the term was coined.  That said, the deconstruction of the trope has also been prevalent in recent years, from films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and (500) Days of Summer and a recent episode of the television series Louie.  Rarely, however, is it addressed as pointedly as it is here.  As Ruby is quite literally a manifestation Calvin’s ideal girl, he can rewrite her however he pleases, and this is where the subtle misogyny of pedestal worship progresses into outright personality control.  It’s still probably more accepted in culture that the frat-boy/jock types who reduce women to pieces of meat are the most obvious offenders when it comes to casual misogyny, but in reality the sensitive, artistic shy types are just as bad; they just reduce women to an object in a different way.  Calvin is contrasted with Harry, who is more typically masculine in that he obsessively works out, works as a sports agent, and before anything else suggests (several times) that Calvin should enhance Ruby’s breasts.  He gives the sitcom-level speech about doing things “for men everywhere”, sure, but he also has a more mature understanding of relationships and women having a wife and a child of his own.

Calvin’s problems are deeper and many, and we’re given a decent enough sketch of some of them (for instance, his mother, played by Annette Bening, completely reinvented herself after marrying for the second time, which is disconcerting to Calvin), but what saves it from merely being an insular character study of an asshole is Kazan’s performance and the weight it gives to Calvin’s treatment of Ruby. It’s telling that their first few days spent together involves a rushing, romantic montage of dates that involve a zombie film festival, a trip to a video game arcade, and Ruby’s sexual exhibitionism.  However, she develops a personality of her own, and after some time elapses and he’s firmly entrenched in living as though they are the only two people in the world, she desires to be more independent and get a job or take an art class or make friends separate from him.  This pushes Calvin to re-write her into what he thinks to be a more amenable girlfriend, but the results backfire as he continuously tries to adjust.  There’s a comic element to Ruby’s abrupt changes in mood, but the script and the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris wisely focus on the sad and cruel nature of the manipulation. Kazan has an undeniable charm about her, but she’s equally adept at gaining sympathy without pity (a talent she used to elevate The Exploding Girl above its mumblecore trappings).  She manages to switch seamlessly between the various traits she’s given without losing the sense that she is a definable character.  The grim tone of Calvin’s continued manipulation reaches a crescendo with a brutal scene involving a typewriter that feels both earned and a little shocking at the same time.

Given what’s come before, the ending of the film feels like a let-off, and part of me wishes that it had gone a little further down the dark alleys of the story, or at least been a little harsher on Calvin, who thoroughly deserves such treatment.  This isn’t a film that really warranted such a happy ending, and given the approach it took towards its story, it couldn’t really go for the pleasant-resolution-tinged-with-ambiguity that (500) Days of Summer managed.  Nonetheless, this is an admirable exploration of a trope that may have been dealt with several times before, but clearly still needs attention.  It’s a smart screenplay by a talented actress, and if it doesn’t quite follow through with its potential, it’s far better than the nauseatingly whimsical confection it could have been.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: