“Ruby Sparks” bears a more than superficial resemblance to the 2006 movie, “Stranger Than Fiction.” Both feature previously renowned authors in the midst of a prolonged slump who suddenly find their newest creations are a little more substantial than ink and paper. Both write on typewriters in austere white rooms free of clutter. Both are horrified but intrigued by what they’ve wrought. Where “Ruby Sparks” differs is that its author is the star of the show, whereas “Stranger than Fiction” mostly stayed with its fictional creation, who begins to hear a narration track for his own life.
“Ruby” is, for most of its length, more interested in questions of creation and love and free will as they relate to artists. Its author, a diffident former wunderkind named Calvin (Paul Dano), accidentally creates a girlfriend. Ruby (played by the movie’s screenwriter, Zoe Kazan) is his ideal woman. After a burst of writing, she suddenly appears in his house with impossible knowledge about their fictional relationship. He’s shocked and confused, but she’s his ideal woman, and she’s real, so he quickly embraces the odd circumstances of their relationship.
Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) is the only person who knows about the situation. He urges Calvin to enjoy what should be any man’s perfect life, but Calvin nobly promises never to write about Ruby again now that she’s real. Harry, in turn, warns Calvin that he’s in the honeymoon period, and that women are never perfect.
The question of whether Ruby will remain perfect is quickly answered. She wants to get out of the house. She doesn’t understand why they don’t have friends. Calvin, whose company has been limited to his brother and a therapist, can’t resist trying to control her. Add to that the slightly battered ego of someone who knows he’s a genius, and things start to get a bit dark. What is free will for someone like Ruby? You start to see why Calvin is so isolated.
Kazan’s screenplay doesn’t go into the particulars of why this magical event happens for Calvin. On the one hand, it’s difficult to imagine an explanation that would work, but on the other hand, I was left wondering why this was happening to Calvin. Why Calvin, of all people? There’s a line in the movie that I loved, where Calvin is talking about Ruby, and Harry says that quirky girls whose problems make them more endearing don’t exist in the real world. It seems likely that Kazan is commenting on movies like “Garden State” and “Elizabethtown,” which feature mopey male protagonists who meet goofy young women who snap them out of their depression and back into living life. Ruby becomes more complex as the movie goes on, and more of her own person. However, this is still a movie about a mopey young man and the goofy young woman who snaps him out of his depression. It’s still his journey, and his emotional development, and his career, that we’re watching.
I realize that in order to comment on something, sometimes you have to imitate it. But part of the criticism of the manic pixie dream girl is that she has no life of her own. Ruby Sparks literally has no life of her own until Calvin gives it to her. What would this movie be like told from Ruby’s perspective?
Kazan’s script doesn’t shy away from making Calvin pretty unattractive. Kazan clearly has some big ideas in mind, but not to the point of passing the Bechdeltest. Yet. This is an ambitious first effort, and while it may miss a few beats, it’s interesting enough that I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.
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