Warning: This review contains heavy spoilers.
Ruby Sparks is a wonderfully likable film. It’s hard not to fall in love with the title character, a construct of an author’s imagination brought to life and made flesh. The writing, the performances, the beautiful music from musician Nick Urata – all work together to create a movie that’s impossibly cute. Impossible being the operative word. The film takes a surprising turn into some very dark material and, in the end, never successfully pulls itself out of the muck – resulting in a movie whose its sweet flavor has an overpoweringly bitter aftertaste.
Paul Dano stars as Calvin, a young author and high school dropout, who after experiencing an initial great success in his career has floundered to recapture the magic. Calvin’s life is a mess – he’s not quite recovered from a traumatic breakup, his therapy sessions with his doctor (played by the great Elliott Gould) very often veer into the unhealthy and the deepest relationship he has is with his dog and that relationship is a troubled one at best.
While struggling to find the story for his new novel, Calvin begins to dream of a girl named Ruby Sparks. Ruby is Calvin’s dream girl and her personality and existence is clearly the product of a troubled mind. A mess of idiosyncrasies and faults, Ruby is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the first order and it is this vibrancy that Calvin becomes infatuated with. As Calvin begins writing about Ruby – obsessively due to his desire to spend time with her and writing being the only outlet for that desire – something magic happens: Ruby is summoned into existence.
Ruby Sparks is a fantasy but not one that chooses to dwell in the “how” or the “why” – instead focusing on the consequences that come with a fantasy realized. Ruby Sparks is played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Kazan is a fresh, energetic personality and does an impressive job at helping to sell the fact that Ruby, despite all her issues, is a woman you can’t help but fall in love with. (Interesting bit of trivia – this is not the first time directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have worked with the concept of a dream girl with a healthy set of issues. More than ten years ago, they directed the music video for The Offspring song “She’s Got Issues” which starred the ultimate in Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Zooey Deschanel in one of her first acting roles.)
As Ruby Sparks, Kazan is the girl next door every straight male has dreamed about at one point in their life. She’s beautiful, down-to-earth, devoted and forgiving. She fits in perfectly with Calvin’s family (made up of great actors delivering great performances including Antonio Banderas, Annette Benning, Chris Messina and Toni Trucks) and she is dedicated to the idea of loving Calvin forever. Calvin, who has had limited experience with women, at first thrives under his relationship with Ruby. He begins dressing better, has stronger relationships with his family as a byproduct and begins to live the life he’s neglected for so long. This sweetness reminiscent of so many romantic comedies doesn’t last though – peering out from behind the curtains is a deep, chasm of darkness that threatens to swallow the film whole.
When the movie starts, audiences are quickly introduced to the idea that Paul Dano’s Calvin has some serious problems. He is prone to infantile behavior, has a history of being co-dependent and would gladly live the life of a hermit if given the chance. We’re used to having romantic comedy heroes with quirks, though – that’s the point of the dream girl, to snap him out of his funk and make him a better person. Paul Dano does a great job making his character extremely likable despite his borderline unhealthy mental state. He’s like a more charming version of Donnie Darko, prone to bouts of weirdness but still not somebody a girl would be afraid to take home to meet the parents.
It’s not until we are deep into the heart of Ruby Sparks, though, that the audience begins to realize that Paul Dano isn’t just a troubled kid – he’s potentially a very, very bad person. When Ruby Sparks was created, she was born from nothing aside from Calvin’s imagination. As much a product of Calvin himself as her own person, Ruby and Calvin’s relationship was a form of mental masturbation. It was in Ruby’s continued existence, though, that she found her own life and – in discovering and establishing her own personality – began to drift away from Calvin ever so slightly.
Ruby may have been Calvin’s dream girl but Calvin was not necessarily her dream guy. He was moody, uninvolved and prone to a possessive nature. As Ruby began to drift away, as is prone to happen in relationships that have issues, Calvin does not attempt to reflect upon himself. Instead, he uses the magic surrounding Ruby to change her further – into something that better reflects his desires. Ruby is drifting away? Calvin makes it so she craves his presence at all times. Ruby becomes weepy whenever Calvin isn’t paying attention to her every second of the day? Calvin further changes Ruby so that she experiences nothing but joy 24/7.
Calvin, realizing that Ruby can be anything he wants her to be thanks to the origins of her existence, becomes the puppet master of his own relationship – pulling the strings and providing himself with whatever he desires at a particular point in time. Eventually this relationship continues down the dark path it set out on and follows it through to its only logical conclusion – mind rape. Calvin does not sexually force himself upon Ruby explicitly (at least not in a way detailed in great length in the movie) but, through the magic of his imagination, he completely violates the woman he loves in a scene that is as dark and unsettling as anything filmed for a horror movie this year. Calvin is slowly revealed to be a bad person throughout the film until he is laid revealed for his true self – a drooling, slack-jawed child banging his fists on a table as he demands the woman he claims to loves to proclaim her devotion and admiration.
The film gets very dark, very quickly and then it has the gall to shove a happy ending down the audience’s throat. This happy ending is not earned – Calvin is never shown learning any lessons aside from the fact that if you abuse your toys too much you’ll break them. We, as an audience, are told via voice over narration from Calvin, that he has come to appreciate the love he lost with Ruby Sparks but how are we supposed to take his word for it? The ending written for Ruby Sparks is not the one the film deserved – but it is the one the audience wants.
Let’s face it – nobody wanted to see the film reach its only natural conclusion. That would be super depressing and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) had a different movie in mind. Despite ending in a manner that will leave audiences smiling, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. It’s surprising how misogynistic and troubling the themes of Ruby Sparks are considering the fact that it was written by a woman. This is a testament to the skill of Zoe Kazan in perfectly capturing the mindset of fragile male ego – it is still an unearned ending nonetheless.
Ruby Sparks would be an interesting film to watch as a double feature with the upcoming Disney film The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Both movies feature a protagonist that wills a loved one into existence through their imagination. While Timothy Green features a child who changes those around him through his actions and words, Ruby Sparks features a woman who is changed by her creator – given freedom, corrupted and, eventually, violated. Ruby Sparks is the better film but Timothy Green, despite all its flaws, understands the importance of delivering an ending that, despite not being what the audience might want, is the one that the film deserves.
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Zoe Kazan
Notable Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Steve Coogan, Elliot Gould, Alia Shawkat