Note: Though I do not recommend this film, I understand some of you will want to see and judge it for yourself, and it’s therefore best you know, before reading, that this review contains spoilers regarding the ending. If you would rather see the film first, come back after you’re done. The review will be waiting patiently.
Ruby Sparks disturbed me.
There’s no other way to put it. I was unsettled by this film and felt uncomfortable watching it from beginning to end. The central character and his wildly amoral actions troubled me, I was constantly bothered by the increasingly dark tone, and felt total outrage at the shockingly incongruous ending.
None of that is inherently a bad thing. Some movies are meant to disturb. Many are meant to unsettle, to coax visceral reactions out of the viewer. I did not enjoy Ruby Sparks one iota, but part of me has trouble writing the film off entirely because there is a possibility the filmmakers intended it this way. Writer/star Zoe Kazan definitely has things to say about the way men treat and view women in relationships, and I think those things are meant to be provocative. They’re meant to be upsetting, and they aren’t intended to be easily digestible.
I admire the intent. I really do. But for the most part, Ruby Sparks simply comes across as misogynistic – grossly so, at times – not because of any negative objective on the part of the filmmakers, but for its many dramatic failings. I don’t believe anyone involved in the production anticipated me to read the film the way I did, but this is a poorly constructed film, and whatever messages were once meant to be conveyed are hopelessly lost, if not downright inverted, in the finished product.
The film’s most damning issue is its main character, a detestable villain named Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano). Again, I don’t think he’s meant to be a villain, but characters don’t come much more unlikable than this. Apparently a successful writer (though no hint of his supposed ‘genius’ is ever actually demonstrated in the film’s diegesis), Calvin is now down on his luck, depressed, lonely, and above all else, incredibly pathetic. Even in the early going, he’s not given a single likable or redeeming trait, and it’s hard to get behind him even before the plot gets underway.
To break a bout of writer’s block, Calvin starts penning his vision of the perfect girlfriend, a spirited woman named Ruby Sparks. Before long, he has a lengthily, detailed manuscript, and cannot stop writing about her. He’s in love with his own creation, which makes it an unexpected dream come true when she appears, out of thin air, in his kitchen one morning. Ruby has come to life, exactly as Calvin wrote her, and she is indeed the perfect girlfriend.
The script has a tremendous amount of difficulty establishing its premise – the construction of the early scenes is clunky and awkward – and an even rougher time settling into it. Far too much time is spent on Calvin and his friends hand wringing over Ruby’s appearance, and almost no time at all on why Ruby loves Calvin in the first place. Yes, Calvin wrote her that way, but Ruby is now real, with free-will and a boundlessly energetic personality, and I never, for a second, understood why she would be interested in someone as introverted, insensitive, and altogether selfish as Calvin.
For as pathetic as Calvin is presented in the early going, he only gets worse once he accepts Ruby as his girlfriend. Since he created her – and has the power to change her by altering his manuscript – he does not treat her as a human being, but as an object for his own pleasure. He is tremendously jealous, entering fits of depression whenever she shows the slightest amount of interest in anyone or anything that isn’t him. He eventually grows so discontent with Ruby’s burgeoning independence that he revisits his manuscript – something he initially swore he would not do – and forces her to be obedient.
This is where the film becomes unsettling. Calvin’s treatment of Ruby is downright disturbing, bordering on sociopathic, and he never seems to truly understand – or even care about – the weight of his actions. Protagonists must, of course, have flaws to overcome, but Calvin’s issues are far more deep-seated than misunderstanding how to act in a relationship (which is, I believe, the intended metaphor). The way he treats Ruby is pure evil, abusive and demented on every possible level, and at a certain point, it becomes irrelevant whether or not Calvin ‘learns his lesson.’ By the time he physically, sexually, and psychologically torments her by rapidly changing his manuscript in front of her very eyes, there’s just no redeeming the man, especially in the way the film chooses to do so.
That’s where Ruby Sparks really loses me. I hate Calvin, and I hate the way he abuses Ruby, but the film is constructed to prompt sympathy, structured to lead Calvin towards a happy ending. To reach that point, Kazan opts for a complete and total cop-out, allowing Calvin to become ‘better’ without ever having to apologize to Ruby or atone for his actions. Ruby is, as it’s made clear time and time again, a real person with real feelings and a real life, but Calvin is allowed to erase her entirely, feel bad about things that happened, and then turn their story into a successful novel that propels him to further fame.
There, more than anywhere else, is where the film feels misogynistic to me. It doesn’t quite vindicate Calvin’s brutal actions, but it does absolve him without reason, and the closing beat shows that Ruby, even across multiple incarnations, will always be sucked back in to this awful man’s orbit. The film presents the man as arbiter, pulling the strings and having his way at all times, and the women as puppet, subservient and helpless, without ever hammering home the destructive, disturbing nature of Calvin’s actions.
Ruby Sparks is littered with smaller problems from start to finish, but if the ending were even a little bit bolder, even a tad more willing to punish Calvin for his actions, rather than reward him, this is a film I could absolutely get behind. I think it has prescient things to say about the ways men control women in relationships, but the desire to have a ‘feel-good’ ending in place of an honest one destroys any attempt at getting that theme across. That’s where I draw the line, and that’s where I cannot condone Ruby Sparks or recommend it on any possible level.
That being said, the film would rise significantly in my estimation if Paul Dano weren’t awful in the lead role. I feel a twinge of regret saying that, because he is an actor I’ve enjoyed in other things, but this is a legitimately terrible performance. He’s overly theatrical, oddly affected, and wildly inconsistent at all times; there’s nothing remotely ‘human’ about his work here, and that just furthers the audience’s disconnect from Calvin.
Much as I dislike her script, Zoe Kazan is very good as Ruby, and I would love to see her in other, better films. Her energy is wonderful, and it’s impressive how instantly lovable she makes this character. That, of course, is a double-edged sword; if Ruby weren’t so clearly an outstanding human being, it would be easier to sympathize with Calvin. As it stands, Calvin embodies many of humanity’s worst traits, while Ruby is comprised of the best, and that dichotomy just deepened my hatred of Calvin at every turn.
The rest of the cast is solid, if unspectacular, and the production values are perfectly pleasant. Still, this seems like a major step back for directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose last effort was the widely celebrated Little Miss Sunshine. Given how assured that film felt on virtually every level, their total lack of command over tone or pace here confuses me.
Then again, much about Ruby Sparks confuses me. I believe there’s a positive message buried somewhere deep, but so much of the film rings false, particularly in the final act, that I walked away with a fairly visceral negative reaction. Ruby Sparks is an awful film, an unintentionally uncomfortable experience I’d like to forget about as soon as possible.