Review of Ruby Sparks (2012), Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
This quirky film about a writer who imagines his ideal woman and puts it down on paper, only to find her materialize in his house (without explanation), is surprisingly delightful. The lightfooted feel of the film is complemented by raw characters that offer deep wells of emotion and considerable weight.
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is an author who wrote a critically-acclaimed novel in his younger years, but has suffered from writer’s block for a long time. Then he begins to have vivid dreams, prompted by his psychiatrist’s whimsical writing suggestion to get the juices flowing. Calvin dreams of his ideal woman meeting him in a park where he has taken his dog Scotty (named after F. Scott Fitzgerald). The entrance of this Muse triggers a whirlwind of activity–Calvin is finally writing again. This Muse, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, who is also the screenwriter), is a sharp redhead with a good dose of fun.
Calvin realizes that what he types into his manuscript actually changes Ruby. His sizable stack of written pages has created Ruby’s backstory–an artist from Ohio who loves Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. In the rough-and-tumble of a romantic relationship, Calvin’s initial euphoria gives way to trying to control Ruby by tweaking the manuscript to alter her emotional makeup. Ruby begins to live a hyperbolic life, swinging from deep depression and clinginess (the fear of most boyfriends) to an annoying, mindless happiness.
Things reach a climax when Calvin tells Ruby the truth about his ability to control her. At first to prove his point, but soon an unmasking of his visceral desire for control, he furiously begins to pound on his typewriter, forcing Ruby to do a series of humiliating acts that demonstrate her bondage. The scene ends with a predictable conclusion: Calvin writes that Ruby will be free to be who she is once she leaves the house. Ruby seizes the opportunity.
There are a number of supporting actors that play various roles in the relationship, including Calvin’s mother and her lover, along with his close brother. These characters offered comic relief, but Ruby Sparks is anchored in the Calvin-Ruby relationship dynamic. Naturally more philosophical questions rise to the surface in such a fantastical narrative. Do we really know what we want? What do men and women want out of a relationship? And the biggest question: what is true freedom?
Do we really know what we want? The film, which arguably may not have a single message, seems to point to the answer “no.” Calvin thinks he knows what his ideal woman would be, but soon finds out that his ideal woman is not enough. In a “meta” sense, what we really want is to have our desires met. Calvin wants to be in control of the relationship in an omnipotent fashion, thus molding the relationship as he sees fit, when he sees fit. This is very telling of the human condition.
Ruby Sparks basks in the pitfalls of romantic relationships. From the male perspective, what is the perfect woman? The film’s message here seems to be typical dating advice: don’t force your partner to be someone they’re not. They’re not a project. This is rather cliché, but the twist of Calvin actually being able to change Ruby at will keeps the audience’s attention.
But what about true freedom? Ruby Sparks offers a simplistic version of freedom. It assumes freedom must be freedom to make yourself whatever you want to be. Calvin wanted “Ruby” to be “Ruby”. But who is Ruby but the backstory that Calvin has created? We don’t approach anything with a blank slate because something innate must dictate why we make a choice between two options. Scripture describes our status as either being slaves to sin or slaves to Christ, but in both statuses, we are still slaves. The biblical idea of freedom is both a freedom from and a freedom for. The Spirit sets us free from sin, whereas he also frees us to love God, pursue good deeds, and glorify Him.
It may be coincidence that Kazan uses the name Calvin (think Calvin of Geneva) for the protagonist, or she may perhaps be trying to push at something. The idea of an author having sovereign control over his characters is an easy, reductionistic analogy for the sovereign God of the Protestant Reformation. But before we go too far, Ruby Sparks is not a philosophical film pondering the deeper things in life. The lighthearted nature of the storyline keeps these weightier topics at bay. Don’t go to the film expecting heavy discussions about freedom, but instead expect a surprisingly good story that experiments with a man who has complete control, but doesn’t know what he really wants.