Review: Ruby Sparks

'If the movie inspires this much thought, intentionally, then it must be great.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Boy, I cannot remember the last time I was ever as mixed on a movie as I am on Ruby Sparks. That provides some very interesting and complex thoughts, and probably makes it a definite “you have to judge for yourself.” I think I’ve decided that if the movie inspires this much thought, intentionally, then it must be great. I may have felt uncomfortable at times, or angry, but that is a profound reaction to have in a movie.

Calvin (Paul Dano) is an author with writer’s block years after his first successful novel. One day he dreams of a girl, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) and starts writing about her. Then she appears in his house. Not only is Ruby Sparks real but he can actually control her by what he writes. He can make her speak French, he can make her be happy, or he can make her do whatever he needs a girlfriend to do.

You’ve got a combination of the wish fulfillment fantasy here but with a definite edge. It’s a kind of creepy idea that this guy can just manufacture the girlfriend of his dreams. At first it’s played as cute; never full-on Hollywood movie cute, but indie quirky cute, so when Calvin offhandedly mentions Ruby’s prowess at sexual acts, it made me feel uneasy. “Huh, there’s a word for that when a woman is compelled to do something sexual with no free will, isn’t there?” Compound that with Calvin’s horndog brother (Chris Messina) who’s already sleazy.

They have a little bit of fun with the premise, but only in one scene where Calvin plays with what he can write for Ruby (I still wonder what he specifically wrote to make her stop speaking French, once he made her do so). I suppose the initial moments where Calvin discovers she is real are fun too, those moments where he realizes she’s not in his head and acts a bit silly in front of real world people. Most of the movie is not a sci-fi story about a magical typewriter that makes women do things. You’ve got this awkward relationship drama with some sinister undertones.

There’s a bit of overt sexuality that seemed troubling, though I have to credit the movie for being responsible about it. There are several situations where Ruby makes sexual advances or suggestions, not because Calvin wrote them but it’s just her nature to be flirty (albeit R-rated flirty). But that’s not just the way she is naturally. Calvin created her, so however he created her (and we don’t see the specific text in that regard), this is his idea somehow. I have to say, as much as it bothered me whenever Ruby’s panties became the subject of a scene, the film addresses the complex misguidedness of messing with sexual intentions.

This whole movie made me antsy. It was aggressive how every scene made me uncomfortable for Calvin, but also just uncomfortable to be around Calvin. We know from early scenes that Calvin doesn’t date, and doesn’t even socialize with his book groupies. He talks to a therapist while holding a stuffed animal so it shouldn’t be a surprise that his subsequent interactions are awkward. Calvin takes Ruby to meet his hippie parents (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas) and they get on his case for being uptight, but they practically force him to indulge in and condone drug use. It’s pot, but still that’s not okay if someone doesn’t want to smoke it and you ridicule them for being so square, man. Maybe environments like that contribute to deficient social skills.

As Calvin’s relationship with Ruby progresses from there, I realized the whole movie is stuck in his oversensitive world. Point taken, Calvin’s selfish obsession is unhealthy and a magical girlfriend won’t fix it. Calvin is so internalized that he’s constantly stressed. You need to be able to exist in a world with other people. Even if you could dictate the perfect qualities in your lover (you can’t though, even with a magic typewriter), that would way too much stress to take on yourself. You’d always have to think of something to fill the gaps in her pre-ordained behavior.

It’s a metaphor for micromanaging relationships and trying to dictate feelings. You’ve got to function with at least one other person in a relationship (more in a family, friendships, etc.). Ten years ago I wouldn’t have even gotten it. Hell, five years ago even, but luckily I’ve learned. Now it’s a highly astute subject, but kind of painful to watch and experience.

Perhaps the story is payback for any audience member who thinks Calvin is a poor innocent soul who just needs to be loved (which is the way Hollywood would generally portray the protagonist). He gets paid back for manipulating Ruby, and I guess the viewer gets paid back for condoning the manipulation in the first place. He’s not just socially awkward. He’s possessive and he only wants a relationship to serve himself. See above about learning to deal with others.

I really appreciate the dark Frankenstein place the film takes Calvin with his creation, though building to that was more of a mumblecore-esque exploration of a relationship in banal day to day situations. Calvin’s also kind of a lousy writer. The pages we get to see are so simplistic, no wonder all his changes make Ruby act so extreme. You know when they make a movie about the best song in the world or the best movie in the world, they can’t actually create the best song or movie in the world or they would have already made the best song or movie in the world. So the words on Calvin’s page are just a plot device.

Kazan gets to show all kinds of emotion and some just plain weird and metaphysical things she’s forced to do. Dano can walk that line of sympathy and twistedness and that’s a big part of why Calvin made me so uncomfortable.

The movie was attacking me so furiously I even came up with a theory that proved totally false. This isn’t a spoiler because it’s not what happens in the movie, but I thought the way they set up the creation of Ruby was a misdirect. Like it was supposed to be one of those movies where someone discovers something magical and everyone thinks he’s crazy and there’d be a twist later. I thought maybe he actually met Ruby in real life but had a psychotic break, so when he wrote her, he didn’t even remember that he’d been inspired by someone he really met. Then when she showed up again he only believed he created her. It would make more sense that he subconsciously wrote about a real woman who inspired him. But no, his magical typewriter really does control her so I was way off base there.

Most of this analysis came from post-viewing thought, so Ruby Sparks lasted a lot longer than the 90+ minutes I was in the theater. During those 90 minutes I wasn’t necessarily enthralled and had some issues with the tonal shifts as they were occurring. I’ll have to watch it again to see if those were carefully orchestrated or just jarring. But if I’m reviewing the eternal life of the film, Ruby Sparks has already proven to be a winner.