Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks markets itself as sweet romantic comedy, opens as delicious satire, slides seamlessly into third-act feminist horror film, and blows it for a closing bid at bittersweet romantic comedy. Surprisingly, it’s not at all confusing to watch.

We meet Calvin at his vintage typewriter. Calvin is a Sensitive Male, you see, and sensitive males write their novels on vintage typewriters. They also sport gingham socks, scruffy hair, and tortoise-shell glasses. They may or may not hold a teddy bear on their shrink’s couch (I blame you, Sebastian Flyte), but they always display a profound self-consciousness and halting inability to connect with others (Calvin is almost a recluse).

This is especially pronounced around women, towards whom they assume a posture of wistful self-deprecation and impotence–until the right girl, the special girl, the volatile and warm and artistic girl waltzes into their lives and unearths the gems that they are.

Of course, if these girls prove a little scarcer-found off the silver screen, you can always write one off the page and into your life. Ruby Sparks creates a brilliant premise out of a simple truth: the manic pixie angel dream-healing indie-man-whisperer whatever is entirely a construction of the immature male psyche. So they made a movie where the manic pixie is literally a construction of the immature male psyche. It’s awesome.

Right after Calvin meets Ruby and wraps his head around the fact that yes, she is real, they have a moonlit poolside tete-tete. Why did you date those jerks, he asks (he, of course, has written her as sexually vulnerable). Because I hadn’t met you, she says, or something along those lines.  You can see Calvin’s face light up, or maybe I just imagined it, because finally, everything is making sense–finally these beautiful girls are realizing that it’s they who are only partially whole without him, that they’ve been making all the mistakes–finally, he’s getting the adoring sprite he deserves for being sensitive, and sad, and purposely emasculated, and Such A Nice Guy, dammit.

It’s sharp spotlight on the cult of the dreamy sad-sack, and the subtly narcissistic version of male entitlement that often pervades the identity. A particularly deft touch is Calvin’s brother–a matter-of-fact, iron-pumping, casually chauvinistic he-man who is nevertheless both the only character in a mature and responsible relationship, and the film’s moral compass.

The movie is full of these great parodic  moments–my favorite is when we meet Calvin’s mother, who lives in a sort of California jungle-treehouse, and she waxes mystical about her manic pixie dream home: “We got the wood from Amish-land (it’s blessed), and the bricks are from a torn-down Catholic school!” Thank you, lady, for reminding me why I hate the rich and artsy.

[Ok people, here come the spoilers.]

As refreshing as the respect afforded ordinary decency over piquant bohemianism is, things really get going only as Calvin’s inability to relate to anyone outside the confines of his own head becomes increasingly clear. As he more and more willingly controls Ruby’s emotions, actions, and character through his typewriter, he enters a spiral of  manipulation that culminates in one of the most disturbing and riveting scenes of vicious abuse the genre has ever produced.

Rarely are romantic comedies so honest about the implications of the relationship patterns they portray; rarely do they confront the audience with raw horror as the price of all that cute. Ruby has never existed for herself–only to titillate, inspire, and affirm Calvin. As Sady Doyle says

“If you think this relationship is going anywhere but to a scene of Ruby forced to shout “you’re a genius” over and over, tears streaming from her eyes, then you’re one of the world’s true optimists.”

The scene is more than a clear-eyed look at the brutality of narcissism,  however–it’s a damning indictment of what the romance of romance does to women everywhere. Ruby is a perfectly subject construction, born of Calvin’s need for control and superiority; as such, she can be jerked around, posed, made to speak strange languages, humiliated, imprisoned, and finally, whirled and twirled into tortured, abject submission. And of course, Calvin never gets his hands dirty–the glory of his total rule is that he can make her do this to herself.  While she is spinning and sobbing, Ruby becomes everywoman–every girl who has stifled her own thought and desires, who has twisted herself up into unnatural contortions social and physical, in whom bodily and mental traits has been ruthlessly moulded or excised to fit some standard of perfect womanhood that exists to annhilate her in favor of a two-dimensional role.

Because this scene is so great, because it takes Ruby Sparks from a clever, gentle spoof to incisive social commentary, everything that happens after it is doubly frustrating. Horrified at what he has done, and loving Ruby, Calvin types that she leaves the house, forgets the past, and is freed of the typewriter’s power. He trades in his magic machine for a Macbook, writes a best-selling, bittersweet novel about his experiences with her, and lives a chastened, wiser man until, mirabile dictu! He meets Ruby in the park. He still loves her, she has no memories of their past, and in Calvin’s introduction and their gentle flirtation, we see the possibility of a fresh start at a healthy relationship. Finis.

I’m sorry, what?

This is problematic on both levels on which it works.  As a conclusion to the story of their romance, it’s terrible–this man has manipulated and abused her in awful ways. It’s nice that he’s realized his error, but his typewriter didn’t cause his behavior–it only enabled it. This is not someone Ruby should go back to–especially since she has no memory of her past, and no way to make an informed decision about her ex-boyfriend. Calvin still holds all the power in this relationship, and he’s still abusing it.

Equally frustrating is the fact that Calvin only “liberates” Ruby through an exercise of power. Had the movie’s resolution involved the imprisoned Ruby waiting till the dead of night and smashing Calvin’s typewriter into a million tiny pieces, I would have stood up and cheered. Instead, Ruby only gains some measure of agency by Calvin’s decision to write her that way; he still is responsible for the content of her character, experiences, and now, even her memory. The Ruby he meets in the park is even more of a blank slate for him to write his story on. She has been freed to make her a fitter mate for Calvin, who has gained enough sophistication to prefer his women cage-free.

For all its insight on the manic pixie dream girl mythos, Ruby Sparks only succeeds in being a subtler version of the trope. Ruby, in the end, exists only for Calvin–to provide with artistic material, romantic fulfillment, and some measure of moral growth. I’m glad Calvin realized that a relationship of absolute control makes both parties unhappy. Unfortunately, neither he nor the film seems to realize that using power more gently isn’t the same as giving it up.

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4 thoughts on “Ruby Sparks

  1. “This is especially pronounced around women, towards whom they assume a posture of wistful self-deprecation and impotence–until the right girl, the special girl, the volatile and warm and artistic girl waltzes into their lives and unearths the gems that they are.

    Of course, if these girls prove a little scarcer-found off the silver screen, you can always write one off the page and into your life. Ruby Sparks creates a brilliant premise out of a simple truth: the manic pixie angel dream-healing indie-man-whisperer whatever is entirely a construction of the immature male psyche. So they made a movie where the manic pixie is literally a construction of the immature male psyche. It’s awesome.”

    Is this the one you were writing, rinsing, and repeating? It was worth it.

    Perhaps it is the fruits of the modern cult of introversion, but one tires of the cinematic trope of the person who is so shy, withdrawn, unable to form a stable relationship, who suddenly becomes the romantic hero (except that we all knew it would happen, because these are the movies and the character, for all his or her geekiness, has flawless skin, perfect hair, and the still-moulded physique that the actor needed for the last role). In real life (I think, anyway), no matter how wounded or vulnerable a person is, he or she still needs to have some base of personal strength on which to build a true relationship. Unless, of course, you like your relationships dysfunctional and cinematic.

    Now, you’ve seen the movie and I haven’t, but although you’re positing that Ruby can and does change and grow beyond the limitations of her character — or perhaps she doesn’t, since she’s artificially liberated from the victimization of the past — do you think that Calvin is past redemption too? Is he incapable of change, or does the movie draw him as such an overwhelming jerk that it’s unlikely he can undergo a sea change? Do you think that he’s unable to form a healthy relationship with any woman, or just with Ruby? (The writing a novel about their “thing” seems a particularly ugly touch.)

    I don’t know much about the movie — saw the review in the WSJ, of course, but that’s all. I’m just curious as to your thoughts on this.

    • Hey, thanks!
      Well, in one of the first scenes we meet him, he’s on his shrink’s couch talking about making friends, how it was something he was supposed to work on, but hasn’t. His brother calls him out on it, we see his ex tell him “the only person you wanted to be in a relationship was yourself,” we see him being cold, withdrawn, and generally miserable at a big happy family reunion. I really liked this about the movie, actually–Calvin’s failures are part of how he relates to people, not just a romantic quirk.
      And I think the movie just cops out at the end by serving him up another chance at Ruby without any evidence of real, prolonged, hard-won change.

    • Authorial fail!

      I saw a post by John Scalzi going around recently — it’s not really germane to this discussion, which is why I’m not digging up the link at this moment — about how creepers at sci-fi conventions need to learn to better relate to the people (usually women) whom they’re creeping out. I don’t have tons of interest in what goes on in the sci-fi community, except as it impinges on the rest of us, but what I did like was that he emphasized: hey creepy guys, that woman who looks so good? Who’s wearing the hot outfit? That’s NOT FOR YOU. She didn’t put it on thinking of you, she doesn’t long for your attentions, you don’t factor into her equations. She’s her own person, not your object. Sounds like Calvin doesn’t hit that point by the end of the movie.

      Glad you’re doing my contemporary watching for me. I’m still wondering when I’ll get to see The Expendables, which has been sitting in its Netflix envelope for weeks.

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