Reporting Eric Henderson
Ruby Sparks has two stars and two directors, and each pair is, well, a pair. Think they’re going to try to teach you something about what it means to be in a relationship?
Well, on a basic level, yes, that’s precisely what they do. But the deeper you get into the movie to pick apart what signals it’s sending and how they differ from what they potentially intended, the less easy its endorsements seem.
Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weir-Fields, author of a wildly successful and critically-acclaimed debut novel who has spent an entire decade unable to either come up with a follow-up or maintain a steady, successful relationship. As a homework assignment from his therapist, he writes about a chance meeting with a random person who likes him despite his flaws.
So he writes about the woman who has entered his recurring dreams as of late, a woman he decides to call Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Just as soon as he’s written a first-person account of a “meet cute” encounter with Ruby, he wakes up to find her living in his apartment, ready to cook him breakfast.
Convinced he’s finally lost his marbles, Calvin ignores her until the fact that his family and friends can all see and interact with Ruby as well convinces him that she is for real. And he realizes she’s not a stalker who’s done her homework when he writes new material about her only to find that everything he writes becomes real (as when he spontaneously types that she speaks only in fluent French, which she does instantly).
From that point on, he acquiesces to his unexpected romantic good fortune. Until he senses she’s starting to drift away from him and alters the narrative of what’s rapidly becoming his new book, to ensure that she acts exactly the way he wants her to act.
The twist of Ruby Sparks is that its script was written by Zoe Kazan, who plays the puppet in the movie but, here, serves as the puppetmaster. Kazan’s script uses a somewhat well-worn plot device (the artist whose work comes to life has been used in everything from Stephen King’s “Word Processor of the Gods” and the Tales from the Crypt story “Drawn and Quartered” to the 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction) and inverts it. Usually this type of story focuses on the rush of power experienced by the protagonist upon finding out he or she can literally alter their external life experience. Ruby Sparks instead hones in on the vacuum of confidence that underlines its main character’s choice to exploit his situation. If he actually had any self-worth, he wouldn’t spend all his time trying to figure out the precise mathematical equation that would allow someone to love him.
Naturally, the film’s creators all have slightly different takes on the ultimate message.
“Once you’re there, it’s your character,” said Dano during the Minneapolis press tour for the film last month, indicating that he ultimately still takes ownership of the role that his girlfriend wrote, which is likely a little bit true to the extent that most other actors would’ve probably tried a little less strenuously to sell Calvin as, frankly, a bit of a pill. (Watch closely how little Dano holds back during a scene involving Calvin’s ex-girlfriend.)
Kazan, having worked on both sides of the camera for Ruby, thinks the relationship is a little bit more symbiotic.
“How much did Woody Allen create Diane Keaton, and how much of Diane Keaton inspired Woody Allen?”
Kazan bristled at the meme “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term that was coined a few years ago in a fit of snark from the Onion’s A/V Club corner, and indeed, a number of critics have pointed out that Ruby feels like a slap back at both the term and those who would use it. Though Kazan said explicitly that she wasn’t writing Ruby as a response to the term or its misuse, she was still inspired by the implications of the term and how it applies to men’s relationship with women.
“I don’t like that term,” she said. “I think it’s turned into this monster where people use it to describe things that don’t really fall under that rubric. … It’s interesting to me that men have this impulse to idealize or ‘bronze’ a woman, to make precious or to make into art something that is living. I think that term erases all difference, all individuality.”
If I’m painting it as though Dano and Kazan had wildly different opinions about Ruby, it’s only a natural impulse given the movie’s ultimate message, one which benefits from the directorial guidance of married couple Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), is that relationships are not best served by focusing on either the self or the other, but rather embracing the combination and learning to appreciate the differences.
And that’s a phenomenon that applies, arguably, to non-romantic relationships … even working ones. How much of you is defined by the people you interact with? How much do you mold yourself to better fit your acquaintances’ personalities?
“There is a lot of fiction in most relationships,” admitted Faris. “Part of what makes them work is that we imagine ourselves and the person we’re with in a somewhat glorified way. Calvin says in the movie, ‘Girls aren’t interested in me, they’re interested in some idea of me.’ What he imposes on Ruby later is what he has felt, where they know his work and they think of him as this literary god, and there’s no way you can actually live up to that perception.”
Or, as Martha put it in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (an instructive text on marriage if there ever was one): “Truth or illusion? Does it even matter to you anymore?”