One of the first things I heard about Ruby Sparks was a criticism (from a male feminist) that the premise reeked of sexism. That’s not, I suppose, inherently untrue. Ruby centers on a struggling, anti-social novelist who literally writes his dream woman into existence. But any sexism inherent in the idea of a man creating the “perfect” woman (she loves blowjobs and zombie flicks) is quickly overshadowed by the film’s dissection of the manic pixie dream girl archetype.
Written by costar Zoe Kazan, who, donning big bangs and bigger eyes for the film, looks like a diluted version of that other Zooey, manic pixie vet Deschanel, Ruby Sparks forces viewers to look at the other side of the dream girl coin. You (“you” being the stunted man-child hero of indie films everywhere) want a girl who’s as carefree, spirited, hip and artsy as the day is long, but do you want the other traits that personality type drags in its undercarriage? Ruby is, for the record, all of the above. She is carefree (she takes her underwear off at clubs!). She is spirited (she makes out in arcades!). She is hip (she sees zombie movies – in the cemetary!). And she is artsy (literally, she’s an artist!).
But Ruby is also all of the less adorkable things that her personality type would realistically entail. She’s impulsive, she’s selfish, and she’s moody. Because the thing about childlike imps is that, while they’re cute as hell, they’re also prone to wild bouts of immaturity. Though this seems perfect for the emotionally constipated Calvin (Ruby’s novelist creator, played by Paul Dano), he proves completely unprepared to deal with the darker side of Ruby the Complete Person. For Calvin, Ruby is at her most perfect when her world revolves around him. While no one would describe Calvin as an alpha male and he would surely see himself as the furthest thing from a stereotypical male oppressor, he seems happiest when Ruby is cooking him dinner before sexing him up before bedtime. And when Ruby develops her own wants and needs – when she makes friends and needs space – Calvin snaps.
An extension of her typewriter origins, Ruby is governed by the words Calvin commits to the page. Translation: He can control her by writing about her. Though he swears he would never exercise that power, his resolve cracks when she becomes distant and a breakup seems imminent. The result is a roller coaster for Ruby and a domino effect of dissatisfaction for all involved. He wants Ruby to need him more, but then she’s too needy. He wants her to be happy, but then she acts medicated. You get the idea. And just when you think Calvin has learned his lesson, as he writes that Ruby is back to normal, whatever she wants to be, you realize just how much he has not.
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Calvin drags Ruby to a party she doesn’t want to go to. To be fair, he RSVP’d her after complaints that he never took her anywhere. This is typical couple drama; you can never seem to do what your partner wants at the moment he or she wants it. But Ruby, like a good imaginary-turned-real-hipster-dream-girl, dresses up like a Mad Men extra and hits the party on Calvin’s arm. At the party, two things of great importance happen. First, we meet Calvin’s ex, Lilah, about whom he spent roughly the first third of the film complaining. By the time we see that Lilah is a rational, reasonable human being and that Calvin was likely exaggerating her flaws…well, we already suspect as much. When he storms away from Lilah, who had the nerve to suggest that he had never been truly supportive of her needs as an individual, he finds Ruby responding pretty directly to his refusal to support her needs as an individual. Ruby’s free will has returned and she’s not the girl Calvin wants her to be.
After the party, the film’s tone plummets into darkness, which is really the only way it can go. Those seeking a RomCom take heed: There is nothing romantic or funny about the breakdown of Calvin and Ruby’s love. As a dissection of the dream girl and an examination of the ideals of relationships, Ruby succeeds rather well. If only there were a little more to the tale or if the story wrapped up more satisfactorily (like the Other Zooey’s dream girl dissection piece, (500) Days of Summer, Ruby overshoots its ending by about a scene and a half). Still, for all of the things that Ruby might lack, a feminist approach is not one of them. Zoe Kazan creates two deeply, beautifully flawed lovers and lets entropy (and Calvin’s typewriter) do the rest.