Ruby Sparks leaps from page to screen

The directors of Little Miss Sunshine score with another quirky dramedy.

Twenty-something Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), who rose to literary fame at the age of 19, is struggling with writer’s block and a slew of other issues — girl problems, dog problems, etc. — all of which contribute to his low self-esteem. We learn during one of Calvin’s therapy sessions that a major reason he got his dog Scotty was so that he could meet people while walking in the park. As it turns out, Scotty is afraid of people who try to pet him, thus hindering Calvin’s plan to strike up conversation with strangers.

Clearly the dog is a representation not only of Calvin himself and his social/romantic ineptitude, but of his control issues as well. That’s a pretty good — if somewhat on-the-nose— set-up for the rest of Ruby Sparks.

After discussing this, Calvin’s therapist gives him an assignment: Write a page (good or bad) about a person who will accept Scotty (Calvin) the way he is. Calvin struggles with this assignment, at least until he has a dream about meeting a beautiful girl in the park. Before long he’s given her a name, Ruby Sparks, a personality, and a whole history. And not long after that he’s professing his love for his creation, saying that he can’t wait to start writing her everyday because it’s the only way he can be with her.

Or so he thought, because one day there she is: Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) in the flesh. Calvin’s overjoyed once he realizes the girl isn’t a hallucination, and they begin living as a couple (Ruby doesn’t know she’s a product of Calvin’s imagination and already believed they were a couple when she came into existence).

For a while things are great, and why wouldn’t they be? Calvin created Ruby expressly to love him. That being said, she’s a pretty banal character, an artist from a small town who rides a bike and wears little dresses with colored tights. Oh, and she’s a great cook. Ruby’s basically the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but with an even less distinctive character than the likes of Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State or Kirsten Dunst’s Claire in Elizabethtown. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a character defined by Nathan Rabin at avclub.com (actually in response to Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown) as, “exist[ing] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” (For further information, you can see Feminist Frequency’s YouTube channel for a great video explanation of the trope.)

Sounds familiar, right? Ruby is Calvin’s creation — by him and for him. When left to her own devices — when she manifests Calvin claims he will never write about her again — Ruby begins to drift away from Calvin and grow more independent. This is unsurprising, as Calvin can be a real stick in the mud, particularly when they visit his mother (Annette Bening) and her beau (Antonio Banderas). When Ruby starts taking an art class and hanging out with other people, Calvin can’t take it and breaks his promise to himself that he won’t write about her. In response to the ultimate MPDG, Calvin essentially becomes the ultimate controlling boyfriend. His attempts to make her happier with him, however, backfire in hilarious fashion.

Although the feminist themes are not in-your-face in the film, Ruby Sparks lends itself easily to a feminist interpretation regarding agency and authorship (particularly female agency and male authorship). The most successful authors and directors throughout history have been men, and as a result the depictions of women are often been from a male perspective. This isn’t shocking, and it makes sense that a man would write about a male protagonist and vice versa. This tendency has led to the prominent image of men as heroes, anti-heroes — doers — and of women as the mother, the sister, or the love interest with no storyline of her own. Unfortunately this is still common today in Hollywood, as the vast majority of screenwriters and directors in both film and television are male, and consequently we see far more male protagonists than female. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the male voice or perspective, but when women aren’t portrayed realistically by men or aren’t given the opportunity to tell their own stories, then it seems like they don’t have one.

This, in turn, leads to a lot of one-dimensional female characters like Ruby (although Ruby’s lack of dimension is purposeful). Early in the film, before Ruby appears in the flesh, Calvin shows his brother what he has written about her. His brother quickly tells him that no one will want to read it because — and here is a very insightful line that I didn’t expect from a character who was introduced more as a “bro” who’s main concern is getting laid — Calvin has “written a girl, not a person.” He pinpoints very early on that Ruby, as Calvin has created her, is really nothing more than a tool of gratification. And naturally, Calvin can’t handle it when she starts doing things for her own personal development.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing you want like to know if Ruby Sparks is actually any good? Put simply, yes it is. It’s well written (by Ruby herself, co-star Zoe Kazan) and acted; not a single character is wrongly cast. The best part is that Ruby Sparks is insightful without being heavy and abstract (or off-putting). And even if you’ve never heard of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or couldn’t care less about feminism, the film is relatable to anyone who has ever built up a crush in their head and then been let down.

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