Ruby Sparks begins as a great feat of imagination, transitions into a charming and witty romantic comedy, and ends as an intelligent commentary on the creative process, insecurity, controlling behavior, idealism, and the fragility of the male ego. It’s all rather ingeniously combined into one of the most likeable films I’ve seen all year – a fantasy, a character study, and a cautionary tale all rolled into one. It must have been a gamble for directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; in combining such disparate genres, and in using them for a singular moralistic purpose, the potential for manhandling it to the point of pretentiousness and self-congratulation was high. Thankfully, nothing that could have gone wrong did. They somehow found the right balance between entertainment and message-making.
It tells the story of a Los Angeles-based writer named Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano). Although he has a published novel to his name, which has just been republished for its tenth anniversary, he currently suffers from writer’s block, in large part because his first and only attempt at being in a relationship ended in disaster. During a therapy session with his psychologist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould), Calvin mentions a nonsexual dream he had about a young woman, whose style of conversation, he claims, fulfilled his need to be loved for who he is. Dr. Rosenthal gives Calvin a writing assignment: To describe this woman on a single page of paper. Calvin has one more dream, during which he and the woman have a complete conversation. When he wakes up, he rushes to his manual typewriter, inserts a sheet of paper, and feverishly begins to write again. This goes beyond a single sheet of paper; he soon has the beginnings of a manuscript featuring his newest character, a lovely young painter named Ruby Sparks.
The fantasy element kicks in when Calvin begins finding tidbits of women’s apparel – a shoe, panties, a bra, etc. – around his house. Then, one morning, he awakens to find a complete physical manifestation of Ruby (Zoe Kazan, also the screenwriter) in his kitchen cooking breakfast. Initially convinced he has degenerated into mental illness, he quickly discovers that other people can see, hear, and touch her. Somehow, he has written a person into existence. He immediately contacts his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), who we can tell has put up with Calvin’s neurotic tendencies for far too long. Understandably, Harry is more than a little skeptical about this situation, and he remains so even after meeting Ruby. As an experiment, and as a way to prove his sanity to Harry, Calvin types in his manuscript that Ruby can speak French without being aware of it. Sure enough, she immediately loses the ability to speak English.
What follows is a funny yet thought-provoking examination of relationships – or, more accurately, how we tend to filter relationships through our own distorted perceptions, not just of our partners but also of ourselves. Although he isn’t physically or verbally abusive towards Ruby, Calvin is essentially the ultimate chauvinist, having the ability to control the smallest personality quirks of his girlfriend with just a few stokes of a keyboard. He, of course, doesn’t see himself that way, and initially, he swears that he won’t change her beyond the scope of how he dreamed her. But then she begins to show signs of independence and restlessness, giving him reason to fear that she might leave him. He knows that with just a few typewritten words, she can be the most devoted woman in the world. In fact, she can be whatever he wants her to be.
Calvin is repeatedly told that he knows absolutely nothing about women, and the film makes it clear that he doesn’t. It’s not an authentic girlfriend he wants. What he’s really looking for is a female version of himself, which in this case isn’t narcissism so much as it is a deep lack of confidence; he wants a solitary, subordinate, serious person, a woman that has no aspirations to be anything more than what she is. He wants someone that poses no threat to him. He begins to realize this when he takes Ruby to Big Sur to meet his comically hippie mother, Gertrude (Annette Bening), who, since the death of her creatively deficient husband, has entered a relationship with Mort (Antonio Banderas), a fun-loving, bearded lug who makes furniture out of driftwood.
Messina’s character must have been tricky to develop, for he had to be engaging while at the same time act as Calvin’s confidant, his heckler, his push towards temptation, and ultimately, his voice of reason. As would be expected, he’s initially overwhelmed by Ruby’s existence, and in the heat of the moment, he’s envious that Calvin is living every man’s fantasy. And yet, at no point does he divulge Calvin’s secret, and although Harry is a flustered husband and a father, he makes no attempt to use his brother’s inexplicable ability to alter his wife or child. This doesn’t necessarily make him a better man than Calvin, although he does possess the ability to accept women for who they are and not for what he wants them to be. I didn’t really know what to expect going into Ruby Sparks, but a fascinating look at people relating to other people certainly wasn’t it. Isn’t it wonderful when movies surprise you?