Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris, 2012)

October 30, 2012

This review contains major narrative spoilers.

With their debut feature Little Miss Sunshine existing as a poster child for an often grating brand of American film associated with studio Fox Searchlight, it is a welcome surprise that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ follow-up effort has a lot more – excuse the phrasing – spark to it. It offers a skewering of archetypes associated with modern romantic comedies and a certain type of independent cinema: the happiness-generating “manic pixie dream girl” of bouncy effervescence, and the wounded, supposedly soulful men these women so often serve as a means of inspiration and revival.

Written by star Zoe Kazan, the film follows Calvin (Paul Dano), the author of a hugely popular book at age nineteen, who ten years later is struggling with any kind of full novel follow-up. He dreams of a girl named Ruby (Kazan), who fulfills various fantasies of his regarding ideal partnership. When his psychologist proposes a writing task to him, Ruby ends up being the focus, but his typing of their imagined relationship seems to bring about her manifestation into the real world. In a development never explained, traces of Ruby begin appearing in Calvin’s apartment, until she herself arrives, with the memories of the life of her page counterpart, convinced that she and Calvin are an established happy couple. Other people can also see Ruby, including Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina), the only other person who knows Ruby was a fictional character.

After initial disbelief, the lonely Calvin is delighted, until Ruby soon displays an independent side beyond the life and features he had conceived for her. The fantasy figure begins behaving like an actual real-life person, challenging Calvin’s ideal vision, initiating resentment in him as she pursues interests outside of their apartment’s confines, and finds common interests with his mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) whose free-spirited lifestyle he also resents. Aware new additions to the pages of Ruby’s inception will change her, the misguided Calvin takes the dark path of altering his partner’s persona to suit his wants.

Tone-wise, Ruby Sparks is this admittedly erratic blend of unsettling grimness and light comedy, but the approach actually manages to work quite cohesively. It’s quite intelligent in its commentary on relationship expectations and delusions, and pleasingly brutal in its mocking of wish-fulfillment ideals. The darkness extends to its main character, whose moral murkiness is particularly interesting; Calvin is less soulful and more selfish. When the secret about Ruby is finally made known to her, the two find themselves in a battle between creation and creator in which she is manipulated in a showy but disturbing sequence, which almost feels like something out of a horror film, in which Ruby is at the mercy of Calvin’s typewriter, an act that leaves the author alarmingly satisfied.

Outside of the relationship commentary, the film is also satisfactory in looking at the bond between artists and their creations. The film’s aesthetic is reflective of this, with the sterile whites of Calvin’s apartment operating as both a symbolisation of his writer’s block’s blank pages and as a cage for test-subject Ruby. Her bright outfits always look at odds with the decor, as though she is trying to escape the suffocating mise-en-scène. Additionally worthy of note, regarding the study of Calvin, is an earlier scene in which he encounters an old girlfriend, Lila (Deborah Ann Woll). Now the recipient of her own publishing deal, Lila’s dialogue regarding their past suggests that Calvin’s problematic approach to Ruby was also inherent in his relationship with a real woman, rather than caused by it. It’s a nice subversion of what another film might have done by having Calvin build himself up by verbally deconstructing his ex whose departure had effected him so greatly.

While supporting player characterisation is occasionally bothersome, such as with Bening and Banderas’ sketchily drawn parents and Messina’s inconsistently written brother, Ruby Sparks‘ biggest detriment comes in its very final scene, which feels glib and ultimately negates the ten minutes that precede it. Calvin, seeing the error of his ways, has produced a way for Ruby to leave him and live an existence where she has no memory of her past with him or the knowledge that she was born from a typewriter. He turns the Ruby experience into a new fictional work, which becomes a bestselling novel like his previous book. In the film’s very last scene, he is with his dog in a park and comes across a woman who looks exactly like Ruby and is also played by Zoe Kazan.

Though her name is never said, we can infer that this is definitely Ruby, with her memories of Calvin erased and now living as an actual human rather than a fantasy figure for wish-fulfillment manipulation. The two strike up a conversation and seem to get along well, the film seemingly suggesting that Calvin is ready to deal with a real relationship. Alternatively, the message could be that these two people will inevitably be drawn to each other again despite the mistake-heavy history they have. The reason why that conceit doesn’t work here like it does in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that, on a superficial level, has a similar but actually poignant ending, is that both parties are not starting over in the same fashion.

While Eternal Sunshine‘s Clementine and Joel had both their memories erased, Calvin has retained all of his. Therefore, he is still in a position of power over Ruby. If Calvin had also had his memories of the time frame erased, the two would have a chance to start afresh that is at least somewhat honest. Instead, the opportunity to approach the relationship again from a wiser perspective comes entirely at Ruby’s expense, making her, in a way, a different kind of fantasy object. Alternatively, if this admittedly unnamed woman isn’t Ruby, despite having the same mannerisms and being played by the same actress, the ending still doesn’t work. If Calvin is seemingly meant to have learned how to deal with a real woman, presenting him with someone exactly the same as the fantasy object negates that message. If Kazan absolutely had to return for the final scene, some additions to her own screenplay could easily have presented this new woman as a radically different person. It’s a shame this otherwise enjoyable and sometimes cutting exploration of two different kinds of relationship should sabotage itself so much in its conclusion.


One comment

  1. Though it sounds like I probably enjoyed the film more than you did, I was bothered a bit by how we’re meant to still sympathise with Calvin by the end. If the film’s writer had been male (and essentially writing Calvin as an avatar for himself) I’d have been more critical of a film in which the male’s numerous sins are resolved far too easily, but it’s interesting that it is Kazan’s work. Though it would’ve made for a rather depressing experience, I’d have been interested in the film to take a permanently darker turn, and have Calvin just falling into the kind of pathetic powertrip like in the scene he controls Ruby and makes her bark. Being John Malkovich took its initially sympathetic lead and make him a complete psychopath; it could’ve worked here too, since by the end I was definitely wanting a happy ending for Ruby more than Calvin.

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