Ruby Sparks (review)

Ruby Sparks yellow light Paul Dano

I’m “biast” (pro): love Paul Dano

I’m “biast” (con): didn’t love the trailer, getting really tired of Manic Pixie Dream Girls

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has seen many odious incarnations. Oh, not the girls themselves: you simply cannot hate them, they’re so cute and charming and quirky and funny and all-around loveably huggable and just so perfect. *squee* But you can hate the trope, which reduces women to paragons of helpful supportive adorableness who exist only to guide men through their essential life’s journeys. And I do hate the trope, which denies women their full fucked-up humanity and a need for their own journeys toward betterment or wisdom.

Basically, until there are an equal number of Manic Pixie Dream Guys, I will keep complaining about this. Fantasy lovers who teach you Important Stuff about life, the universe, and everything and make you a better person and then disappear into the ether are awesome (well, except maybe for the disappearing part). It’s the fact that The Movies can imagine only fantasy women lovers for men that is the problem. The only Manic Pixie Dream Guy I can think of is Jake Weber’s Joe, the husband of psychic cop consultant Allison Dubois of TV’s Medium… and he’s stretching the definition, because while he’s adorable and supportive, he’s pretty cranky and he’s always around all the time, unlike love-’em-and-leave-’em MPDGs. Oh, and maybe — maybeTitanic’s Jack Dawson. But he only left because he died.

Ruby Sparks, the eponymous MPDG here, may be the most odious of the lot. Oh, not Ruby herself, of course: Ruby is cute and funny and speaks French and forgets to pay the bills. (I don’t know how forgetting to pay the bills is intended to contribute to her adorableness, unless feminine incompetence is supposed to be cute — damn, it probably is supposed to be cute, isn’t it? Fuck.) Ruby is odious because she is quite literally novelist Calvin’s dream girl: he wrote her as part of a creative exercise only to find to wake up the next morning to find her making breakfast in his shirt over her underwear, which everyone knows is totes adorbs. Ruby is odious because, unlike all the other MPDGs, she is a not-real woman, so we cannot even console ourselves with the notion that she has her own independent existence apart from Calvin.

This is intended, perhaps, to be satirical, the idea that an adult man — Calvin is meant to be around 30 — has to invent a dream girl to satisfy his needs, something an actual flesh-and-blood woman is apparently unable to do. Ruby Sparks was written, after all, by Zoe Kazan (It’s Complicated, Me and Orson Welles) who stars as Ruby and is, in real life, the romantic partner of her costar, Paul Dano (Cowboys & Aliens, Knight and Day). (It’s directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.) But there is no woman’s perspective on what has become a tedious cliché of movie stories about men. My god, how amazing might this story have been if it had been presented from Ruby’s viewpoint! How does she feel about being idolized? How uncomfortable is that precarious pedestal upon which she’s been placed?

But that’s not what’s happening here! This is barely distinguishable from other similar tales of young men who need a schooling in the realities of not being a selfish jerk, with one glaring exception: unlike those other stories, this one is all about teaching Calvin that — spoiler! — women are people. How pathetic is that? How is it that we should be expected to see it as charming and sweet and funny and nice that a grown man doesn’t already know this?

The hell of Ruby Sparks is that Dano is indeed charming and funny, even though his Calvin is drearily self-absorbed and self-pitying, a supposedly “genius” author who’s been obsessing over his writer’s block for years and in general seems to be living a really comfortable privileged life that it’s impossible to see in any bad way. (The other message of Ruby Sparks, apart from “Women are people,” is “Life in really really pleasant in Southern California if you’re rich.” Gee whiz, who’da thunk?) The whole cast is charming and funny, including Chris Messina (Like Crazy, The Night Chronicles: Devil) as Calvin’s wiser brother, and Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right, The Women) and Antonio Banderas (Haywire, Black Gold) as his mother and stepfather. And Kazan as Ruby. It’s so hard to hate them that I feel like a real heel complaining about their movie at all.

But the fact remains: The underlying gist of Ruby Sparks is appalling, that it should be seen as a revelation by anyone over the age of 12 that controlling a romantic partner is no fun, as Calvin learns when he asserts his creative control over the invention of Ruby, or that women have a need for an existence apart from the men they love. It’s not even like Calvin suffers any negative consequences of his experience with Ruby: we’re meant to infer that he gains awesome new insights into humanity that break his writer’s block and lead him to a new book that reinforces his public reputation as a genius. And we have no idea how he will cope with relationships with real women. “Ruby loves giving blow jobs!” Calvin is delighted to inform his brother. What will he do if he falls in love with a real woman who doesn’t enjoy catering to his every desire? We haven’t a clue.

I despair that the big reveals of Ruby Sparks aren’t givens from the outset. We won’t ever get truly smart movies about love and romance and sex until we start with, not end with, the radical idea that women are real.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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