It should tell you everything about the media’s blanket perception of women in Hollywood that every article about, interview with or biography of Zoe Kazan, the writer-star of Ruby Sparks, opens by acknowledging the identity of her famous director grandfather, Elia (On The Waterfront). The implication – as also leveled against Sofia Coppola, but rarely Jason Reitman or Nick Cassavetes – is nepotism; this girl would never have got a script greenlit if not for the blood in her veins, and any success is only inherited from her elders.
Another way in which women’s identities are stifled by Hollywood is in character ‘types’ – the supportive/slutty BFF, dizty cheerleader (the odd inverse of this in high school movies is the ‘only-hot-when-she-takes-her-glasses-off’ geek), damsel in distress and various other diminutive stock characters. But the most aggressively androcentric of recent times is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Coined by Nathan Rabin, he describes MPDGs as existing “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This is the ‘type’ Kazan has been charged with creating in Ruby Sparks, one of the most woefully misinterpreted films of recent years.
At the beginning of the film we meet Calvin (Paul Dano), twenty-nine, single, and living the lifestyle afforded him by the bestseller he wrote at nineteen; this book he now seems to want to bury, not only for the increased weight of expectation it places upon him with each passing year, but also for the fact that it keeps dragging him out into the sunlight, forcing him to interact with a society he doesn’t understand and much less belongs to. Calvin (whose name recalls for me the exuberant tyke from the Calvin And Hobbes comic strips) is lonely, cradling the pain of a recent breakup, and in therapy for his writer’s block. It seems clear that he is not healthy, and in no place to meet a girl, despite the constant encouragement by his brother Harry (Chris Messina) to do so.
He dreams of a girl named Ruby (Kazan). “Her first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead“. At first she is only a fantasy, but soon becomes the subject of a writing assignment handed to Calvin by his therapist (played with gravely relish by Elliot Gould). Calvin here becomes the surrogate for every heartbroken, whimsical male screenwriter or artist in history, if we trace the lineage of this idea back to the Pygmalion myth, where the MPDG is like the living statue Galatea. Quite simply, Calvin writes his ideal woman. He even confesses as much, realising in one session that he is writing “to spend time with her“, falling in love with every detail that he creates. Of course, this detail is based upon the records Ruby might listen to, the sex she had with her art teacher (… “or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet“) in high school, the copper shade of her hair, carousel of brightly-coloured tights or fruit-decorated Ts. Calvin writes a woman who can only exist in fiction.
But then, through an act of love or magic, she comes to life, and Calvin’s live-in MPDG starts making him eggs and doting on his every whim. It is here that most people start to misread the film, accepting Ruby as the simple ‘type’ of films like Elizabethtown, (500) Days Of Summer or Garden State, and many reviews begin to describe her as a victim of male fantasy, lacking independence or even identity. This is plainly untrue.
Calvin quickly locks away the half-finished novel which produced Ruby and begins to date the scatterbrained collection of ticks he has imagined (which makes him the unhealthy one, an idea established over and over again in dialogue but also evoked by his cold, sterile-white house in which the only other living thing is a dog named after F. Scott Fitzgerald). At this point she is the typical MPDG, co-dependent on Calvin as much as he is on her, but as the film progresses the relationship changes. Ruby eventually develops conscious thought and becomes tired of Calvin’s attitude. She criticizes his behaviour during a weekend retreat at his parents wildwood mansion, suddenly seeing how stubborn and self-involved he has become. She asks why they don’t have any friends, and when he – like a naive teen experiencing first love – declares that he doesn’t need friends because he has her, her response is logical and heartfelt. “That’s a lot of pressure.”
Ruby suddenly becomes aware of a life outside of Calvin. She takes an art class and makes friends while he remains stunted. In fact, Calvin remains unchanged while Ruby has undertaken an entire 180° personality change, becoming stronger and more independent of her own free will, as he has not touched the typewriter for months. It is only at this stage in the relationship that Calvin becomes desperate, angered by her sudden autonomy, and he performs an act of unthinkable emotional violence, changing her thought pattern to make her need him; she becomes clingy and suffocating, and at first he takes joy in the cute, kooky mannequin fixed to his arm. It takes place within the realm of fantasy, so few have stopped to think of this moment in the context of a real relationship, but it is abusive, and a moment of quite profound sadness.
Now under the control of her writer, Ruby reverts back to all of her MPDG tropes, in one comic scene grabbing Calvin’s hand at breakfast, leaning into his chest and declaring, “I miss you right now.” He has overwritten her, so takes back to his typewriter and attempts to make her “normal“, which allows for mood swings he doesn’t understand. When she acts out at a party, undressing for a dip with his agent Langdon (Steve Coogan), his sickness becomes all consumptive. A terrifying scene finds Calvin confessing his powers to Ruby, first creating an invisible forcefield to block her from leaving the house (a quick metaphor for the way abusers make the lives of their victims feel smaller by confining them to an environment where they can hold sole power), and then makes her speak French, snap her fingers and twirl around declaring his genius, acting, as R. Kurt Osenlund notes in his Slant review, like a “malfunctioning Stepford Wife“. He relaxes into his chair, again taking satisfaction in watching his creation act out his every wish.
But Ruby is now stronger than him. Yes, Calvin may write at the end of his novel that Ruby is free, it may seem as if he is releasing her from his grasp, but this is to assume too much power on his part. The final scene (which has dark layers of in-built irony; it’s like a swift kick in the teeth to (500) Days Of Summer) informs us that Ruby is a real person in the real world, with an independent life and no memory of her time with Calvin. This means she didn’t just disappear in the morning, on the command of Calvin’s typewriter. She left him. She had the final say over her captor, whose attempt to reduce a woman to an easily manageable compendium of kooks failed. In the end he has a chance to redeem himself, and perhaps this is the film’s slip-up, its ill-advised retreat into sentiment for a character who doesn’t deserve it, but I think he has learned from a past mistake which, we must remember, was born of anxiety, loneliness and a possible self-loathing.
Kazan is playing the MPDG here as an act of martydom, fitting a ‘type’ that she may deconstruct and, finally, stick a dagger in the back of. She has expressed loathing for how widespread a character it has become, going so far as to call it “misogynist“. I think hers is ultimately a feminist film, or at least one trying to be (those final scenes may undermine the point a little, even if I think they’re smarter than they’re given credit for). Perhaps the film Ruby Sparks most resembles is Funny Games, in as much as Kazan wishes to criticize the main audience her film will draw – men in their twenties for whom the MPDG has become a very real ideal. The trailer ushered them in with her batting, soulful eyes and gentle pratfalls, and then proceeds to tear apart their dreams, informing them that these women don’t exist, you can’t make them exist and if you do they will adapt, grow and leave you.
Looking at the film’s audience statistics on IMDB, this would seem true. Of the 38,093 members who voted on the film (giving it a 7.1 rating), 20,572 were male, and of that number 12,099 were aged 18 – 29. Less than half that number of females (5268) in the same age group voted, although both liked the film. Of course a male fantasy would appeal to males – and the film is to be encouraged for deconstructing their unhealthy ideal of women, and I’m surprised more female viewers didn’t comment on, or perhaps even find this value in the film. To bring us full circle, Ruby Sparks is also a valuable comment by Kazan on her own creativity, and her relationship to her family name. In this film she writes herself out of the shadow of a dominant male figure, proving her articulateness and artistry in a medium still feeling and partially defined by his influence.