We all have an ideal romantic partner. Perhaps they bake. Perhaps they recycle. Perhaps they bake and recycle. Most of us reluctantly admit that no ideal can ever replace the real person when he or she finally comes along. But what would happen if that figment of your imagination, that fulfillment of your every desire, became a reality? Ruby Sparks, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, explores this possibility, resulting in a film that is simultaneously disturbing and touching.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) is a painfully reclusive novelist who is facing a rather nasty case of writer’s block. Both his therapist Langdon (Steve Coogan) and his macho brother Harry (Chris Messina) encourage him to meet new people in an attempt to jumpstart his new novel. Reaching out is easier said than done for the quiet, awkward Calvin, whose only friend seems to be his dog, Scotty. Inspiration finally arrives when Langdon gives him a writing assignment: Thus, Ruby Sparks (Kazan) is born, literally; she arrives in his kitchen early one morning. While he is frightened and confused at first, Calvin is soon enthralled by Ruby’s quirkiness and wonderful cooking. His brother insists that he take advantage of his power by molding Ruby into the person he wants her to be. Calvin refuses … until the relationship begins to sour.
The consequences of his actions are what make the movie so powerful. The first half of the film tries very hard to get laughs, but is unsuccessful, most likely because the audience has seen many of the gimmicks before: a clumsy man who has no idea how to relate to other people; a free-spirited girl who likes to paint; a New-Age mother who feels liberated by her husband’s death. The mushy dialogue between Calvin and Ruby is overly sweet, and the first 45 minutes in general are about as intriguing as the blank white walls of Calvin’s house.
However, the film hits its stride when Ruby begins to transform from a zany character that likes watching vampire movies in a graveyard and takes off her panties at a party to a real person who wants to have other hobbies and meet other people besides Calvin. While she enjoys her one night a week away from Calvin, he lies in bed miserably, holding Scotty for comfort. When she further asserts her independence, Calvin takes to his typewriter again and writes the fateful sentence, “Ruby was miserable without Calvin.” She returns to him, but is reduced to a weeping, clinging child who cannot go anywhere without him. She breaks down when Calvin lets go of her hand to simply take a phone call. When Calvin writes her sadness away, she becomes manic — laughing and giggling at everything and nothing.
Calvin’s journey is rather disconcerting, but necessary. When he realizes that he is thwarting Ruby’s ability to be herself, he tries to free her, only to find their relationship crumbling yet again. His attachment to her is not one of love, but one of obsession. In a way, it is difficult to condemn someone so lost and alone in the world. As the narrative progresses, he treats her like his property rather than his girlfriend. It is difficult for him to see Ruby as a person because in a way, she is part of him, part of his imagination that has somehow materialized in front of him. His inability to accept her, with all her imperfections and varying emotions, is ironic, considering his constant complaint that no one can accept him for himself. He falls prey to the same kind of idealization and fantasizing, not only with Ruby, but also with his previous girlfriend Lila (Deborah Ann Woll). It is only when Calvin realizes that he, as Ruby’s creator, is the only one who can set her free that either of them can find any sort of peace or happiness.
Though Ruby Sparks starts off as a light-hearted romantic comedy, the film progresses into a warning against the dangers of objectifying and idealizing other people. Calvin’s final act of the movie not only shows his growth as a person, but also as a writer. A writer is, of course, obliged to imagine and develop characters, but if a character is to become a person, one cannot forget to set them free.
Ruby Sparks is now playing at Cinemapolis.