Creative people are self-obsessed assweasels. And you can never really love someone else — you just love the fake version of them that you create in your head. Love is really the process of your ego attempting to crush and neutralize the ego of your object of affection.
That's sort of the nihilistic message I take away from Ruby Sparks, a new movie about a guy who writes his dream girl into existence. The bad news is, Ruby Sparks isn't just kind of nihilistic — it's also a movie in which you don't care about any of the characters that much. Spoilers ahead...
In Ruby Sparks, Paul Dano plays Calvin, a writer who achieved massive literary fame when he was just 17. And now, he's trying to come up with a second novel, but he's creatively blocked. But then he starts dreaming of a beautiful, quirky, elfin girl named Ruby (Zoe Kazan) — and meanwhile, his jolly therapist (Elliott Gould) assigns him to write something, even if it's bad.
The good news is, the film acknowledges how creepy all of this is — especially once Calvin gives in to temptation and starts changing Ruby's mind for her, using his typewriter. The middle section of the movie, where Calvin gets corrupted by his power, is the most interesting and memorable part, and will probably make you break out in hives. And the film is clearly straining for a message that loving someone — really loving them — means accepting him or her as a separate person, with thoughts and desires and ideas. You can't just love the idea of someone in your head, and try to force the other person to fit into that.
And the movie does make Calvin's massive self-absorption an issue — at one point, we meet his only previous girlfriend, who helpfully explains that Calvin only ever saw her as an extension of himself. Meanwhile, Calvin's brother Harry (Chris Messina) lectures him about how he knows nothing about women, and how he has to actually listen to people occasionally, or at least pretend to pay attention to other human beings.
Harry is a more traditional "guy guy," who works out and has some kind of nebulous job managing famous athletes. Harry has a cute wife, who rolls her eyes at Calvin's eccentricity — and during one of the most interesting moments in the movie, Harry confesses that his wife left him briefly, a few years earlier. And since then, he's known that she could leave again at any time, and that he has to work hard to keep her around. When Harry's macho facade falls away and he reveals the insecurity and neediness that underlies his relationship with his wife, it's the sort of emotionally honest moment that stands out, in the midst of immense cuteness.
So for a while, Calvin and Ruby have a sort of perfect relationship — she's always at his house, cooking him delicious meals and paying attention to him, and he's blissed out. Calvin goes "Wow" a lot, with his whole face opening up, so that he looks like a twelve-year-old getting a lapdance. The soundtrack goes "oooooh" a lot, in the manner of quirky Sundance movies.
And then, of course, Calvin and Ruby run into trouble. Ruby wants to meet Calvin's family, and he finally gives in — but then Ruby gets along too well with Calvin's mother, who was a traditional housewife when Calvin's father was alive, but has remarried and become a free spirit. (A transformation that Calvin disapproves of.) Worse still, Ruby starts wanting to get out of the house on her own and do her own things, possibly including having her own friends. Soon enough, Calvin is worried he's losing her.
Traditionally, in this sort of romantic comedy, the man has a kind of secret that he's keeping from the woman. Like, he can hear her thoughts. Or he's secretly the evil bookstore magnate who's driving her small independent bookstore out of business. Or whatever. And the crux of the movie is when he reveals the secret, or she finds it out on her own, and they can at last have a relationship based on Hollywood's simulacrum of honesty.
In Ruby Sparks, though, Calvin's secret relates to Ruby's very existence. Her personhood and what little agency she has depend, to a very large extent, on her not finding out that she sprung from his literary noodlings. This movie's set-up is incredibly dark, and even though the movie does venture into that darkness as time goes by, it also wants you to invest in Calvin and Ruby's relationship as something real and possibly even beautiful.
Before we go any further, I should confess a personal bias. I hate movies about writers. For example, I had a major problem with Stranger Than Fiction, partly because people kept insisting that Emma Thompson's character was a great literary writer, when her writing was clearly kind of schlocky. Movies about fiction writers are just one of my pet peeves — and especially movies about writer's block. So that could be one reason why this movie didn't entirely work for me.
That said, there are two major problems with Ruby Sparks. The first is that it is quirky, with a capital Q and possibly a few other randomly capitalized letters. It's like the quirkiest Sundance movie about offbeat whimsical people you've seen, only with more whimsy added in. This is especially in evidence during the happy parts of Calvin and Ruby's relationship, when she's being a manic pixie girl and he's being an adorable manchild, and everything is seeming vaguely European. This movie wants you to adore it.
The other problem is, the protagonists aren't that likable. To the extent that Ruby is a person, you sense that she's sort of a codependent fuckup who's had a string of self-destructive relationships with men who treated her horribly — and part of Calvin's fantasy, I guess, is that he's going to be the nice guy she falls for this time around.
But also, you're probably supposed to think Calvin is a sweet guy who slowly becomes creepy, as he wields more power over Ruby through his magic typewriter. Unfortunately, he starts out being portrayed as hideously self-absorbed, and watching his endless therapy sessions doesn't do much to dispel that notion. And then we watch him spending days writing fanfic about his ideal woman (with himself as the Mary Sue), until she finally materializes.
By the movie's climax — where it goes to a very dark place indeed — you kind of wish Calvin would both turn out to be, in turn, the creation of some other, better, fantasist who could force him to get over himself a bit.
So you have to give this movie some points for being so dark and devoid of consolation about romantic love — to the extent that the Calvin/Ruby relationship is a metaphor for real-life relationships, as writer/star Zoe Kazan claimed in our exclusive interview, it's a very dire metaphor indeed. The most interesting, well-observed stuff in the movie is also the most depressing — like the fact way Calvin starts to resent Ruby after she becomes too friendly with Calvin's mother. (There's a case to be made that this is a film about misogyny and how it stems from men's issues with their mothers — but I don't think the film wants to be about that, and when I asked the directors, they seemed taken aback by that reading of the film.)
Oh, and there's also a metaphor about the relationship between the creative process and magic, and how both can shape and change the world. But that gets subsumed pretty quickly into the notion that even if Calvin somehow created Ruby, she still has an existence beyond his imagination, and he can't necessarily understand her. Any more than any artist can fully encompass or understand his or her own creation, I guess.
All in all, Ruby Sparks is conceptually a great movie — but its depressing messages about the solipsistic nature of love and the selfishness of creativity are obviously meant to be counterbalanced by our affection for these characters. Unfortunately, a bleak message and unlovable characters make for a dreadful combination.