dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Being a deeply neurotic person, I regularly fall prey to a panoply of fears. One of the most fundamental for me is either not being seen as a person, or failing to see other people as real people.
I'm sure that probably sounds a bit weird. I mean, there are a bunch of far more reasonable and likely things to be terrified of. Spiders, for one, insanity, earthquakes, tsunamis, radiation, cancer, germs; there's a lot out there, and they're just the simplistic ones. People with elaborate and expansive imaginations can think of plenty more crap on a second-by-second basis to be horrified at the prospect of.
My fear about forgetting to see the inherent humanness of people and just seeing them as objects is a powerful one, because I think it's so easy.
You forget, sometimes, don't you, when you're dealing with someone who seems more like a collection of annoyances rather than a living, breathing person, to see them as they deserve to be seen, as a whole person? Or when you fixate on some other aspects of their being, and completely forget about their personhood, and instead bliss out at whatever aspect / fetish takes your fancy?
And what if you do this overwhelmingly to the people you're meant to be closest to in your life, like your own partner or family?
When Ruby Sparks first came out, I recall reading various conversations about how some people were seeing this film as a takedown, a deconstruction of the so-called "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" character that permeates the entertainment sphere. The character, almost always written into screenplays by male writers, tends to reduce female characters to idiotic and simplistic caricatures of femininity just to help a dull male character our of their funk. Sure, fiction is a form of fantasy, but these characters tend to be seen explicitly as a male fantasy of what a superficial but desirable 'woman' would really be like.
This construct, this 'thing' they play has nothing to do with the physical: it comes down to how mindlessly and without agency they act. The bipolar energy, the tweeness, the flightiness, the 24-hour sexual availability, the borderline psychoticness are all, somehow, meant to be desirable to us, the viewer, looking through the eyes of the male protagonist. It's strange, I know, but there you have it.
If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, here's a list of manic pixie dream girls that I can think of off the top of my head: anything played by Zooey Deschanel in everything she's ever done, (often) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Meg Ryan in her heyday, a lot of Natalie Portman's crapper roles, and basically any role where the character's sole purpose is a feisty 'feminine' function that wouldn’t seem to exist except that the main character needs her to.
The writer of this film, however, Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of the legendary and infamous director Elia Kazan, rejects this outright. Ruby Sparks, for her, and she should know, isn't about the propensity for screenwriters to write these empty characters; it's about the danger of idealising the people we're romantically involved with.
She also plays Ruby, so I guess we have to take her word as law. As in, she's the Judge Dredd of this endeavour, and if she says 'manic pixie dream girl' is a misogynistic and reductive term, and that it doesn't exist really as a phenomenon in movies, then She is the Law, and must be right.
Calvin (Paul Dano) is a writer who wrote a really successful book at 19, and then nothing for over a decade. Don't knock it till it happens to you. He has no friends, he lives a fairly isolated existence, and he is in therapy. Sure, there's writer's block as well, but I don't think there's ever been a movie about a writer where the theme wasn't explicitly or implicitly about the dreaded writer's block, so mentioning it seems pointless.
You know, Writer's Block! That thing that's worse, apparently, than fifty Holocausts, twenty genocides and a hundred ingrown toenails. Calvin's writer's block is the least of his problems. His main problem is that he's a bit of an awful human being.
He's in therapy at least, so at the very least we're meant to think that he wants to address his awfulness in some way, as if the tender ministrations of his doctor (Elliot Gould) could actually help. So he's lonely, but he doesn't really like people, so, naturally, he has to get a dog (to make people like him).
This complete lack of human connection (with anyone apart from his brother (Chris Messina)) causes something strange to happen, well, strange anywhere apart from in movies: He starts dreaming about a girl, and not just any girl. She perfectly embodies everything he wants in a woman.
She’s perfect, and he’s besotted with her, and loves spending time with her when he’s asleep. In dreams a person can be the embodiment of everything we’ve ever wanted, and why not?
This inspires him to start writing about her, which is possibly great news for his publishers. He fleshes her out, so to speak, and gives her a history, a place in the world, a roundedness that belies the fact that he’s not writing the biography of a real person.
He creates her, though, as creative types are wont to do, and that has a whole bunch of repercussions in the real world, when she appears in his life and lives and breathes, and is visible to everyone including Calvin.
I’m not going to elaborate upon the hows and the what thes?, I’m just going to say that Ruby steps out of his dreams and into his car, or apartment as the case may be, and she’s real. Or ‘real’, I guess, as real as anyone else in a movie.
Calvin finds that she is exactly as he’s written her, the exact embodiment of his writing. As such, he wonders and swiftly finds out what would happen if he ‘writes’ her differently. Essentially, he can ‘edit’ her at will, and what a terrible power that would be to have over someone.
Even as she is perfect, a cocksucker like Calvin still finds elements to be peeved about. She’s fine as she is, but he’s not, so his changes are often about changing her to make her more bound to him. Every time he gets what he wants with the changes, something manages to piss him off, so some other change has to occur, with this cascade of edits irreparably damaging not her, but his ability to believe in the fantasy of her, rather than the reality.
The film elegantly makes the point that if you could erase the disagreements you have with your partner, if you could sand off the sharp corners of their personality that sometimes bug you, what incentive would there be to listen to them, to compromise with them, to try to see things from their perspective? What relationship worth preserving could survive the indifference of one party and the malleability of the other? Calvin confesses to his brother about making changes to Ruby because he feared she was about to leave him, and the brother quite rightly points out that he fears it from his own partner, and it forces him to be mindful of her, all the time, knowing that she could leave.
To put it really simplistically, it means being mindful enough to avoid complacency, to not take their presence or existence for granted, all things Calvin isn’t capable of comprehending. After all, this isn’t just a mannequin or an anatomically-correct sex doll he’s projecting a person on to: she’s a mirror his vast and mewling ego has created to reflect him him him at all times, and that knowledge fills him with disgust. As it should, because he also know he can’t love this ‘thing’, because he can never see her as a person, whether she’s living and breathing or built by words or not.
He’s not capable of embracing the messiness of another human being without being threatened by her, by his own insecurities, which is why he’s the one who’s damned, not her. Goddamn this film is good, and deeply unsettling.
There’s not a lot of percentage in talking about the plot device used to have her in the story. It works perfectly well if you can handle stories like Stranger than Fiction (where a character in a movie finds out he’s a character in a writer’s novel) or Adaptation (where characters talking about and trying to avoid movie clichés live out the movie clichés). I had zero problem with it, and Zoe’s performance is excellent throughout. I really think she had a clear idea of exactly what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it, and in the main it works.
Paul Dano is fine as the main character, but he’s a very dislikeable character, and only becomes more dislikeable as it goes on. Bloody self-centred writers! It makes it hard to relate to him, and even harder to swallow the ending, which is a bit of a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ ending, but I guess that’s the destination that was planned all along by Zoe, so who am I to complain?
No-one, because, after all, I could just be a figment of your imagination, created at a time of your greatest need, created just to tell you how awesome you are, whether you deserve it or not.
8 times it’s probably more likely that you, dear reader, are the very real figment of my imagination instead out of 10
“Don’t quote me to myself” – no need to get snippy – Ruby Sparks