Taking on a genre which has been characterized primarily by male wish fulfillment, Ruby Sparks, written by the female lead of the film, Zoe Kazan, instead exposes the truth behind those “dream come true” scenarios. A man creating a woman for himself is a theme that has been explored before, certainly, but never before has that desire been shown to be as potentially emotionally unhealthy as here.
Calvin Weir-Fields, played by Paul Dano, is a young writer, who has attained early success with his first novel, written at the age of 19. He has written some short stories since, but nothing that would live up to the expectation of genius on display in hist first opus. The term “genius” itself haunts him, as he repetitively asks everyone to not use the word around him, fearful of the responsibility that places on him. Of late, he can’t write at all, finding fault with all of his ideas. Suddenly, Calvin has a dream – a girl, who is speaking to him kindly, and even likes his dog, despite his deficiencies. He quickly starts writing about the girl compulsively, and their imaginary relationship blooms into love. Calvin’s life revolves around the experiences he has with the girl while writing his next book – which, one gets the feeling, might not be that good. More than anything, it’s wish fulfillment for the despondent writer. The fulfillment is, of course, only intensified when he wakes up to find his imaginary female character Ruby Sparks to be real, and living in his house.
A series of broad comedic hijinks ensue, but here is where Ruby Sparks sets itself apart: the character of a woman conjured out of a writer’s imagination still has an internal life, which, despite the film focusing on Calvin’s journey, continues when she’s out of the frame. Indeed, that is the central conflict of the film – we realize that deep down Calvin would prefer that she be a character that is solely motivated by her relationship with him, but this is not the case. This puts the character of the young writer in a stark contrast to how we would like to view ourselves; but we, for the most part, recognize this to be psychologically true in ourselves, even if we’d like that to not be the case. Affirmation, the desire to be seen and loved by others in that intimate way can be overpowering, and we often lose control to it. This is portrayed by Calvin eventually succumbing to his desire to “edit” Ruby, his creation, by further writing. The result is a mix of tragedy and comedy, which occasionally becomes almost slapstick.
All of this climaxes in a scene which is profoundly scary, and is a true reflection of the darkest, most selfish part of Calvin’s character. Despite the movie working up to it diligently, it still comes as a shock the character we’d been following takes all of his frustration out on the one person we know he does actually love in what amounts to magical abuse.
Of course, regret and consequences follow, and we are presumably better for the experience. The end is vaguely happy and hopeful, as it should be, because being resigned to a lifetime of depression is frankly not what Calvin deserves, despite his mistakes. The value of the film is that these are mistakes we all make, and we must simply be careful to not repeat them. Maybe watching somebody else make them on the screen can help with that.