In a plotline that feeds into the fantasies of 90% of people who work in cafes, an author defeats writer’s block by writing about a woman he dreams of, who then comes to life and is able to be controlled by said author’s typing. I mean, this guy—Calvin, nearing thirty, played by Paul Dano—had already written a bestseller at age 19, and lives off his writing. This is more unrealistic than bringing a girl to life with your mind, but is strangely not the topic of the movie.
Calvin is moping about, friendless, dateless, and not writing but being harassed about it, when he dreams of a girl and they have a nice conversation without any usual weird dream things like it being in your old bedroom but actually on Mars or anything. Inspired by that and his therapist Dr Rosenthal (Elliot Gould), he writes about her, and thus Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, also the writer and one of the producers) springs to life one morning as Calvin runs about panicking about being late. Reacting perfectly to the presence of a strange woman in his house by hiding from her and freaking out, it takes a while for him to comprehend that she is real, really real and wonderful and fun and just the girl for him. Which is grand, until their relationship hits a few minor speed bumps and Calvin, in a panic, gets back onto his typewriter and changes her course.
What are the ethics of controlling someone, even when they’re not entirely real? What about if you think it’s for their own good, to make them happy? What would you do in the same situation? (We discussed it while we were watching: write them a huge trust fund and a bright red convertible Cadillac.) What is behind Calvin’s need for control over those in his life? Ruby Sparks is thrown around as a lightweight comedy but has a lot of depth and seriousness; you won’t always be laughing, and everyone is not perfect. While it outright discusses (without the name) Manic Pixie Dream Girls and how they are not practical as human beings, it raises other questions, for me anyway: why are men compelled to write women with sexually turbulent pasts? Did it not pass the Bechdel Test on purpose to make a point about women being idealised?
Well now that serious contemplation is out of the way, I will say that it’s a great movie: the acting is sincere, the characters bounce off each other well—Calvin’s much more normal brother Harry (Chris Messina) is a good straight logical man without coming across as boring because of it; Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas (sigh) as Calvin’s mother and stepfather are an interesting look into Calvin’s psyche; Calvin’s dog Scotty is suitably fuzzy—and make it a believable situation in a believable world. When Calvin tries to alter Ruby’s personality and finds things inevitable screw up, it makes for both humorous and slightly-to-very depressing situations. It’s an interesting idea and it’s been done well. As a bookseller, one of my favourite things about it was that the book covers in the movie were actually great instead of the crap they usually put out in films—mostly, the author’s name IN VERY BIG LETTERS in case you weren’t sure the book they were signing was their own. If these books turned up in my store, I would buy them. Kudos to their art department then, and to their set designers for Calvin’s stepfather’s forest-like house, which is the most divine place you’d ever want to live in armed with lots of bug spray.
Ruby Sparks is quirky and delightful while avoiding cliché and never straying into comedy for the sake of it. You could do a lot worse than this film next time you’re out and about. I give it four out of five houses with swimming pools.