Ruby Sparks is the story of an agoraphobic writer who peaked too soon, and finds new inspiration when he writes (types) his dream girl into life. Literally.
Calvin (Paul Dano) wrote a novel to rival Catcher in the Rye when he was a teenager. Ten years later, his only friends are his brother and sister-in-law and his pet dog, Scotty. And he is creatively blocked to the point that he is seeing a therapist (Elliott Gould).
In his sessions with his therapist, Calvin reveals that he has a recurring dream about a cute, red-headed girl named Ruby Sparks. His therapist recommends writing about her to see if it will unblock him. Calvin complies, at first reluctantly, but then in torrents of creative energy (sparks).
One morning he comes down the stairs of his apartment to discover Ruby cooking him breakfast. At first, he believes he’s just hallucinating her, but soon he discovers that other people can also see her, and she is indeed real. In fact, not only is she real, but he can control some of her actions, and even her underlying personality by typing new pages about her.
Sounds like every man’s dream come true, right? Not exactly. Calvin soon discovers that the power to control another human being, particularly his soulmate, is a Russian nesting doll of Catch-22s. Trying to make her happy makes her manic, trying to make her exclusively his makes her clingy. His every attempt to improve her destroys a little bit more of what drew him to her in the first place.
In this aspect, the movie is reminiscent of one of my favorite short stories: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” in which removing the “blemishes” of the beloved only serves to dissolve her.
You might be thinking at this point, haven’t we heard this story again and again ad nauseum? It’s the old Pygmalion project rearing it’s wizened head again, right? Ruby Sparks is just a Galatea or Eliza Doolittle for a new generation, right? Can’t we just say don’t try to change the people you love, and be done with it?
Fortunately, Ruby Sparks adds a new wrinkle: a female screenwriter. Zoe Kazan—in a case of life imitating art—wrote the script, and plays the title character, staring alongside her actual boyfriend, Paul Dano. Ruby is not some caricature of a woman with her inhibitions removed. She is a fully-realized woman written by a woman. She is disturbed by the strange power Calvin seems to wield over her. She scolds him when he shuns his mom’s boyfriend’s good-natured efforts to make nice with him. She feels smothered. She makes friends and has a life outside of Calvin’s apartment.
Furthermore, the movie is directed by the husband and wife team that brought us Little Miss Sunshine. This is no mere speculative exercise. This is couples therapy. I can only imagine the actual arguments and tender moments of the respective couples that inspired scenes from the movie. There seems to be an honest wrestling with the complexity of love between the sexes.
Just as Little Miss Sunshine was less a story about a little girl’s beauty pageant and more about the deeper bonds that overcome the dysfunctions of family life, Ruby Sparks is less a morality tale about a lover’s quest for the perfect mate, and more about a writer learning to live outside the pages of his typewriter.
Calvin has become so self-absorbed he has shut out the people who care about him. Ruby is just another one of the many characters who populate his life. He interacts with his friends, family, publicist, and ex-girlfriend only on his terms. When they are not serving his purposes they are forgotten, only to be remembered when he needs them again. Given an unprecedented amount of control over the life of another, he begins to realize how selfish he has become.
In a pivotal scene, Calvin forces Ruby to tell him he is a genius over and over again until she’s exhausted. This is significant because up until this point he has contradicted anyone who has called him a genius. But as he watches Ruby worship him, the deception of his false modesty slowly crumbles, and he sees the ugliness within. Will he take the opportunity to change, and begin to free the people in his life to be who they are, or will he descend deeper into his growing isolation?
Ruby Sparks expertly balances such heavy scenes of soul-searching with an undercurrent of refreshing levity. The color palette is bright and cheerful, and the score by Nick Urata is both whimsical and sublime. Strings and trumpets and bombastic timpanis soar to the idealistic heights of infatuation and explore the quiet moments of sated love that simply enjoys the silent presence a lover. Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano successfully translate their off-screen chemistry to the movie.
Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect—the plot feels a bit linear, some of the narration can give it a 500 Days of Summer style heavy-handedness, and several of the minor characters are a bit flat and unrealized—but then again, love rarely is.
Note: This movie is rated “R” for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use.