All writers, at one point or another, have felt the inspired moment when a story moves through them as if they were a conduit. The ability to manifest a living, breathing creature on a piece of paper can feel like an act of magic, and it is this precise feeling of divine power that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Ruby Sparks trades in on. In their sophomore film following the heartfelt if somewhat formulaic effort Little Miss Sunshine (2006), the directing duo focus on the story of Calvin Weir-Fields, a fidgety, Woody Allen-inspired character who penned a New York Times bestselling novel while still attending high school. Now, Calvin enters the film completely inert: he is young, successful, and uninspired as a writer, whiling away the hours in a quaint loft nestled somewhere in that same mythical, charming Los Angeles that (500) Days of Summer (2009) managed to fabricate.
Through a therapeutic exercise, Calvin stumbles onto a new muse in the character of Ruby Sparks, played first in sporadic dream sequences physically bathed in sunlight by Zoe Kazan. As the film goes on, Calvin delves deeper into his novel and becomes obsessed with Ruby to the point of falling in love with her and writing himself into the novel as a love interest. Then, one morning, Calvin wakes to find the real Ruby Sparks his kitchen, cooking in her pajamas and picking up the thread of their romance stolen from the pages of Calvin’s unfinished novel. Understandably, Calvin assumes he has gone insane and in a fit of comic buffoonery tries to escape his delusion without ever leaving his house, instead choosing to hid from her under his desk. All this, however, is simply a set up for the romance that eventually ensues between the two once Calvin learns that Ruby is real. From this point, Calvin must confront his creation as a personal romantic fantasy made flesh-and-blood. He attempts to maintain the purity of his love for Ruby, but slowly grows to understand and subsequently refuses to acknowledge the demands he puts on her as his own fantasy.
Once the story matures, moving from the predictable comic hijinks of Calvin’s discovery to a tender and tenuous romance that Calvin technically maintains full control over (he has yet to finish the story and can dictate Ruby’s actions and moods however he sees fit), the film blossoms into a bizarre reflection of the moral consequence of the male gaze and the motivations that lie beyond a simple romantic invention. When Ruby begins to assert herself and seek her independence, Calvin fears he is losing her and begins to meddle with his creation. He writes that Ruby misses him terribly, and Ruby returns to him immediately in a state of grief, refusing to leave his side. Seeing his mistake, Calving writes that Ruby is happy, and she proceeds to go through a manic spell of glee bordering on insanity. Vexed by the consequences of his manipulation, Calvin finally returns Ruby to normalcy, and so she sits on the couch in a daze, frustrated by her pendulum mood swings.
The problem is simply that Calvin’s demands of romantic “perfection” are too severe. People are imperfect. They can be messy, selfish, arrogant, depressed, or any other catchall description involving an inextricable list of fluctuating shortcomings, regardless of whatever romantic constructions are created through another’s abiding affections. The simple truth is that we often love the idea of a person, and all Calvin really wrote was an idea. When Ruby appeared in his kitchen, she was born. And with every passing moment, she became more alive and thus more prone to the burdens of life. As Calvin continues to play God with Ruby’s soul, the film grows unexpectedly dark and his romance is torn asunder. And while Calvin’s book and the film itself end on a bitter sweet note, glorifying the romance and downplaying his betrayal, the lasting impact of the film has to be in the climactic scene in which Calvin looms over his typewriter, refusing to let Ruby leave him. To say anything more of the scene would be tantamount to a betrayal itself, but allow me to affirm that the film’s greatest emotional catharsis derives from this dark moment. Indeed, the moment Calvin attempts to wrest away Ruby’s emotions he begets his own destruction, for while Ruby may move to the syncopated sway of Calvin’s typewriting keystrokes, love itself is shown to be beyond anyone’s control.
The film’s warm ending panders to an audience still pining for the idyllic romance that nearly destroyed Ruby’s character, but it strangely feels authentic in the moment. It is perhaps telling that Zoe Kazan wrote the screenplay herself, and starred in the film with real life partner Paul Dano. This fact might explain why Dano’s character remains sympathetic, and why Ruby seems less a lecherous daydream and more a woman made to accept Calvin unconditionally. Beyond all feminist undertones, Calvin seeks for Ruby to love him so he can believe in his own worth, some validation outside the hollow praise he still garners from his novel. If this film were merely about the burden of the male gaze, and how women must change in order to conform to it, the story would have ended with Calvin unintentionally destroying, or simply revealing the falseness, of his unadulterated love for Ruby. Instead, Kazan’s script is more interested in examining how we as a people look for others to accept us and fill a void in our lives. The lesson herein is that if we are not careful, we may demand too much in our love. We may demand perfection, and as Ruby can attest it does not and will not ever exist.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.