August 23, 2012
She’s quirky. She’s cute. And she’s really into Calvin Weir-Fields.
Calvin (Paul Dano) is one of those kids who peaked in high school, only he was never popular. He wrote the Great American Novel when he was 19, and since then, he’s had writer’s block. And making-friends block. And, as his hair suggests, taking-a-daily-shower block. He lives in an immaculate apartment and uses a very hipster typewriter. His psychiatrist gives him a writing assignment: to imagine someone who could love him completely. And then one night, Calvin has a dream. It’s about a girl. Her name is Ruby.
Calvin starts writing about her. He’s getting pretty into it, until dream-Calvin and dream-Ruby have been dating for a month or so. Then Ruby shows up for real—standing pants-less in his kitchen, whisking eggs.
He initially tells his brother, Harry, that he won’t write anything more about Ruby (Zoe Kazan, YC ’05) because she’s already perfect. But when Ruby starts to get frustrated with the relationship, Calvin starts tweaking her—first so that she’s unable to leave his side, then so that she bounces around the room, giggling interminably. When she gets upset, he simply writes a more palatable demeanor into her character.
In a more optimistic version of this story, Calvin would quickly realize that true love can’t be taken by force; he would have to let Ruby go in order to gain her love. This film is different. In the climactic scene, Calvin dramatically reveals his omnipotence to Ruby and then, using his typewriter, forces Ruby to twist in dizzying pirouettes and shout over and over, “I love you; I won’t ever leave you!” It’s creepy and terrifying and brilliant.
This deviation from a cookie-cutter plot is more striking because Ruby Sparks has all the external markers of a standard romantic comedy. The Ruby of Calvin’s dreams is cute but generic, a Zooey Deschanel-ish sprite with big blue eyes and a penchant for magenta tights. She even has a knack for coming up with trite romantic phrases: “I guess I was looking for you; it just took me a while to find you,” she tells Calvin, explaining her tumultuous romantic history.
Calvin is so desperate for companionship that he sees no logical issue in dating an imaginary person. “So what, we’re just going to pretend she’s your girlfriend?” his brother, Harry, asks. “She is my girlfriend,” Calvin insists. “Do you remember what happened when you met Suzy?…You said she was your dream girl. Well, that’s what happened to me.” The difference, of course, is that Harry’s wife is a real person.
The irony with which Ruby Sparks pokes fun at the rom-com genre is playful, but it’s also pointed. Although the film relies on an impossible premise, it reflects a male-centric culture that is all too real. Ruby exists to serve Calvin’s need for love—and furthermore, he’s unwilling to admit that. At the end, Calvin chalks up his relationship to “love”, to “magic”, not to his own egotism and cruelty. He tells a group of fans with a smile, “She came to me wholly herself, and I was just lucky enough to catch her.”
By masking the twistedness of their relationship with the neat packaging and bow of romance, Calvin creates a self-serving narrative that relies on Ruby not as a complex character, but rather as an emotional crutch. As Harry says to Calvin, “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing don’t exist…You haven’t written a person, k? You’ve written a girl.” And indeed, it seems that Calvin’s lover is a papier-mâché mishmash of all his desires, a cartoon character grotesquely transformed into a human being.
Ruby Sparks, then, is about the danger of solipsism. It’s about creating narratives that don’t question the dominant perspective. That discussion is particularly relevant to questions of gender, given the weighty social dominance of the solipsistic male perspective, but it could apply to any kind of power dynamic. The risk is not only of creating a false or incomplete world, but also of creating a boring, trite one. Ruby Sparks is a call to revitalize the rom-com genre–to discover new richness in stories that are often constructed using tired stereotypes.
Meredith Redick is a junior in Yale College. She is a contributing reporter for Broad Recognition.