August 28th, 2012
I wanted to see Ruby Sparks because it looked like a sweet comedy and I have low standards for films: if I can laugh along with strangers in a darkened auditorium, I’m basically always in. Even better, this sweet comedy was about fiction writing–it practically counted as professional development. Super-in.
Surprise, surprise–Ruby Sparks is way *better* than I expected. While I’ll watch almost anything, this film actually has genuine emotions, and is a genuine reflection of not only writers but the whole messed-up romantic comedy genre. RS isn’t a work of genius or anything, but it’s a pretty great movie for a Friday afternoon.
Less of a surprise is that this film has tonnes in common with Stranger than Fiction from 2006. Both movies are about characters who are helpless pawns of an author who writes them any which way s/he pleases, despite the characters having fully developed personalities and desires of their own. In both films, the author/character conflict stands in the way of romance. In StF, the story was told from the character’s point of view–a buttoned down, grimacing Will Ferrel in my favourite of his performances. In RS, the story belongs to the writer in both senses–Paul Dano stars as Calvin, the hotshot young novelist who can’t his personal life together. Sound familiar? He’s no Emma Thompson, who played the neurotic writer in StF, but he does the job pretty well. His sensible sidekick is his brother, played by Chris Messina, and I really enjoyed the realistically funny depcition of their relationship. However, Messina, one hardly needs to add, is no Queen Latifah, who played Thompson’s sidekick/assistant in StF.
That’s about where the comparisons end, though. The character Calvin creates is not just the protagnoist in a book but the girl of his dreams–Ruby Sparks, as played by Zoe Kazan. Kazan also wrote the screenplay, which caused me to meditate a little on the personality type that would write a film about a dreamgirl, then cast herself. It works, but I still wondered.
So Calvin writes about a girl he would love to have, and then she materializes in his kitchen. After a brief and funny freakout, he gets on with his now-perfect life of love and meatloaf with lovely Ruby Sparks. Except…
Before this all went down, his brother read the novel draft and pronounced Ruby Sparks a fantasy, not a girl–created to fill a need of the mind, not to be real and weird and difficult the way actual women actually are. And this is the problem with most romantic comedies–people don’t have real flaws, they have “quirks” that make them adorable, and which they aren’t really responsible for anyway. Because they are so darn quirky!
I get it–I love this sort of fakey-fake romantic comedy too. Who wants to see Reese Witherspoon actually behaving badly, and actually having to deal with it. I mean, maybe you would, but that’d be a whole other category of movie.
Or maybe not. *Ruby Sparks* somehow allows the viewer to slowly and gently probe the depths of Calvin’s fucked-up-ness. A visit to his parents, played by Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas (*very* funny) starts out as your typical “wacky parents” schtick, but gradually we see that they’re basically nice people with a little surface wackiness, and Calvin treats them rather badly. There’s also a nice scene late in the film where the dynamic with Calvin’s “awful” ex-girlfriend is revealed to be rather more complex than first expected.
This is not to say that Calvin is cast as the villian, or even an unlikeable guy. It’s just that he has some real-person flaws, unlike the usual rom-com fake-flaws-that-are-actually-other-people’s-faults, like fear of committment and trouble discussing feelings. Calvin is a control freak and unwilling to explore other people’s lives or personalities outside of the narrow confines in which he has placed them. These are flaws that many writers have to struggle against–written characters stay so beautifully still and passive in a way that humans just *won’t*. It’s frustrating.
That’s why Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby towards the end of the film is so gut-wrenching. While every rom-com has some kind of betrayal to drive the lovers briefly apart and create a crisis in the narrative, most of them involve crazy misunderstandings, things done while drunk or upset that don’t really mean anything, or any of a number of other constructs designed to keep viewers from liking the characters any less.
Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby is genuine, and genuinely horrible–even though the scene is based on silly magic, the emotion in it made me cringe like when I overhear couples arguing in restaurants. Calvin’s actions aren’t a mistake and he can’t take them back–they arise out deep and genuine flaws in his personality. I hated him in the moment, but I also totally got his motivations.
It’s not all as dark as this–there’s a hopeful ending that actually doesn’t make too much sense even by the magical laws that governed the rest of the film but, eh, I liked the spirit of it and the movie was over then anyway. This movie was far funner and sweeter than I thought it would be, and more of both than anything else in the category I’ve seen in ages. And it gives you some insight into the ways writers are screwed up, if that interests you. Highly recommended!!