How Ruby Sparks got her groove back

I got to keep this rolling. This blogs was made for writin’, but since I haven’t had to time to devote a thesis-worthy length of time on any single piece of fiction, I’ll be doing some rapid fire critiquing.

Ruby Sparks! That was entertaining. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a wunderkind novelist suffering from writers’ block whose unwitting triumph of imagination springs to life the girl of his dreams, which plays out like Stranger Than Fiction had Karen Eiffel been played by Zooey Deschanel. Gender politics may appear to take center stage, but I can’t believe we’re meant to read this movie’s plot as ‘Misogynist played by Paul Dano learns the error of his ways,’ but rather ‘Artist comes to terms with his identity and his work.’ More than anything else, thanks to a deep enough commitment to character by a depressed Dano and a bohemian Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks reflects on an artist’s relation to his work. Calvin is tormented by his past success, a debut novel that became a runaway smash, adored by the literati and venerated by youngsters a la Catcher in the Rye. Pressured for a followup by his aloof, jealous publisher, hounded by admirers, he’s come to resent the foundation of his career. He holes up in his postmodern mansion, bereft of any adornment, and wouldn’t you know it, he types away on an old Underwood (or some other famous typewriter brand) trying to recapture his muse. We catch foggy bits about a bad breakup and a deceased father that have also sunk him further into despair. There’s the rock, where he wants to grow as an artist and be proud of his work, and there’s the hard place, where he needs to pitch his work to a worldwide audience for approval and reward. Inbetween is Calvin, hoping for it all to coalesce.

Ruby’s arrival is fun, especially as she is weaved directly into the reality of the world. Her backstory exists, and she interacts with real humans without keeping Calvin at the center of her world. They go on a hipster’s wet dream of a date: arcade, midnight showing of Braindead, panties-optional rave. It’s pretty rocking for Calvin. We’re glad to see him lighten up, but just as he does so, Ruby starts to behave unpredictably, and this is meant as no judgment. She is merely acting human, and here Calvin panics, with her intimations of meeting other friends or taking night classes for fun. He’s afraid she’ll be affected by strangers and so becomes increasingly possessive, whipping out minor character traits on paper to mold her, keeping her inside her little Calvin-cosm. She needs to stay within his vision. After being so grossly praised for his debut novel, Calvin has seen one baby taken beyond his ownership, turned into something he no longer believes in. He can’t have the same happen with Ruby. He’s tortured by the thought of his work evolving beyond his imagination.

Interestingly enough, Ruby’s appearance does nothing to help Calvin’s work. It jolts him out of depression, but he becomes preoccupied by her and grows frustrated when she starts to interrupt his reveries. Much like the creative vacuum caused by Brian’s relationship with Twist in Spaced, his joy and fear of losing Ruby clouds his better judgment and his inventiveness. Here we get the most insight into his previous relationship, which failed apparently due to his controlling nature. Here, as Ruby’s creator, Calvin has more at stake with Ruby’s identity and well being. She isn’t a separate person, she’s the embodiment of all that he believes he loves. That’s why he never degraded her by turning her into a housemaid or a sex slave like his slightly loutish but good-hearted brother – the only other person who knows the full story – suggests.

Disappointingly, the story takes a Stuka dive into cliche, the nadir being a bewildering visit with Calvin’s hippy dippy mom and matching stepfather (played inexplicably by Antonio Banderas) at their Ewok village creative studio/garden mansion. The secret of Ruby is almost leaked by Calvin’s brother’s drunk innuendos over an awkward dinner. Finally Calvin storms out on the stepfather (played inexplicably by Antonio Banderas), because evidently Calvin has mommy issues. His deceased genius father was some sort of curmudgeonly Norman Mailer type, you see, so my misogynist theme may actually  have a little credence . His disapproval of the freewheeling lifestyle lived by his mom and stepfather (played inexplicably by Antonio Banderas) is as fleshed out as Bog Man, and after it’s made exceedingly clear that they encourage his artistic pursuits wholeheartedly, his only reason for being so unamenable is his disappointment over Mom’s remarriage, which doesn’t make for riveting watching. This is one thread that holds little sway over the rest of the story, and these characters never reappear.

The ex-girlfriend touched upon throughout appears for a climactic showdown with Calvin, and when Jessica from True Blood shows up in the third act, she brings True Blood with her. It’s jarring, excruciatingly melodramatic, and used as a device to put Ruby in a pickle with a predatory publishing slimeball, but the worst effect is that it spoils any Ruby theories you’ve cooked up by suggesting that her appearance is simply some sort of magical coping mechanism employed by Calvin’s heartbroken psyche.

There’s a predictable last push by Calvin to reorder his life, unashamedly highlighted by the purchase of an Apple laptop to replace the old Underwood, signalling Calvin’s progression from haughty hipster to conspicuous consuming hipster. The end appears to make little to no sense, but after some thought I do feel like it holds up. By having Ruby, Calvin’s purest creation, discover his story about her, he’s wrestled his demons and made peace, seeing that his work turned out the way he wanted it to, ready to accept the criticism with an open mind and a forgiving heart. Ruby enjoys his book, nitpicks a tad about its pretentiousness, funnily the very weakness that Calvin is willing to see in himself. So maybe he isn’t in a better place psychologically, but he’s a step beyond the comatose creative state he once inhabited. he can look on his creation with full appreciation, and after a harrowing episode earlier where he spitefully exercises full control over Ruby, he sets her free.

I was going to try fitting his some more stuff here, but I can’t quite find a common thread between Ruby Sparks and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly. Maybe I could have with Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but it’s late and I don’t want to. More to follow. Hey, Matt!

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