Wednesday 16 December 2020

The Question in Bodies #29: Ruby Sparks (2012)

(Spoilers, of course.)

A while back a friend expressed surprise that Ruby Sparks was marketed as a romantic comedy rather than a horror film. It turns out that Ruby Sparks, the story of a writer who finds inspiration when the perfect/imperfect girlfriend he creates not only comes to life but behaves in line with whatever he types on his pretentiously old school typewriter, is neither. Is it that good? It's all right. Is it interesting? Yes. 

Calvin (Paul Dano) was at one time an important voice in young adult fiction, inasmuch as he once wrote a multimillion-selling teen romance novel, which you might as well call, something like, oh I don't know, The Star in Our Faults. He's been coasting on that for a decade, and he lives alone in a nice house and hasn't had much luck in love and every day he fails to write something on that pretentiously old school typewriter. So far, so cringe. 

Taking some advice his analyst (Alan Arkin) gives him a little too literally, Calvin one night has a vivid dream of a slightly kooky, slightly scatty, but very pretty young woman (screenwriter Zoe Kazan) who falls nonetheless head over heels in love with him. Energised, he fleshes her out. And then, one day, she is a real person, there and present in his life.  

Calvin: Ruby's first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead. Ruby got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher... or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven't decided yet. Ruby can't drive. She doesn't own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She's complicated. That's what I like best about her. Ruby's not so good at life sometimes. She forgets to open bills or cash checks and... Her last boyfriend was 49. The one before that was an alcoholic. She can feel a change coming. She's looking for it.

It's such a straight man's idea of what a quirky girl would be like. She hates her middle name, so he makes sure you know it. She likes things that straight men want their girlfriends to like. She has a hole in her life the exact shape of a male romantic protagonist. She was abused by a teacher, and it's framed as romantic. 

It becomes clear early on that her hints of a dark past extend only as far as that makes her interesting. Her mental health problems are adorable and quirky mental health problems, not horrendous and traumatic ones. Her lack of competence in executive function extends only as far as not being able to look after herself, but does not prevent her enabling and looking after the man who completes her (she might not be able to handle her bills but she can still totally cook an amazing three course meal, because of course she can). It seems that Ruby Sparks is being set up as an example of that most annoying of American cinematic tropes, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the fun and offbeat woman who exists wholly to enable the development of a soulful and sensitive straight guy and maybe, I don't know, teach him lessons about life and stuff. Natalie Portman does this for Zach Braff in Garden State (2004). Kirsten Dunst plays a similar foil for Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown (also 2004). 

Except of course the intention of this movie is not only that Ruby is not an example of the trope, and not even just to make a statement that the trope itself is bullshit. In fact, even naming the trope is bullshit. The invocation of it – of course, it was named by a man – is bullshit. 

In 2012 a journalist interviewing Zoe Kazan supplied one of the great interview cringe moments. The interviewer asked Kazan if Ruby was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, when the whole point of the movie is that she isn't, and you could sense her impatience: come on, did you actually watch the movie?

“Well, I am not a fan. Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.” — Zoe Kazan, interviewed by The Vulture, 23rd July 2012

Both Calvin and Ruby appear at first glance to be tropes, but they're not. Ruby's materialisation is never explained, and this is a canny move, because she is real, and she is present and she is complex in the way that people standing in front of you are complex. The way that they fill space, and have inner lives, and the way they have secrets. 

But Calvin is also real and again that's in less romantic ways. Because a wealthy, talented and famous young man with a sensitive demeanour who is unable to maintain a relationship is in any real world single for very good reasons. Primarily, this is because he's an entitled, selfish piece of shit. I mean, tropes like this don't just harm women. We have these romantic tropes in our media and we don't really understand that in the real world they don't work like that. Like how the way Tom Hanks romances Meg Ryan by not telling her he's also her internet boyfriend in the worryingly prescient You've Got Mail (1998) is actually stalking. Or how Domhnall Gleeson uses his ability to travel in time to manipulate Rachel McAdams into falling in love with him in About Time (2013) is morally dodgy. Or how it's painful that Chris Pratt is ultimately forgiven for sealing the fate of Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers (2016). Or even how Bill Murray manipulates the affections of Andi McDowall with his constant do overs in beloved moral fable Groundhog Day (1993) doesn't really bear too much thinking about the moment you try to pull it outside of fiction. The trope of the guy who manipulates his object of affection's destiny and entirely gets away with it because He's Doing It For Love So That's All Right is quite frankly a lot more common and pernicious in cinema than the so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girl and rarely the subject of comment. 

When Calvin realises that his dream girl is real and that the words he types on his pretentious old school typewriter change anything he wants about her, Calvin tries to make her perfect. He wants her to be independent, so she's independent and not doting on him. So he decides she's only happy when she's with him. So she becomes clingy and needy and he can't get away from her. And all the time her depression – which he wrote into the fundamental basis of her as a character – can't be fixed. 

And yet in a lot of ways she is better than Calvin. She understands far better than Calvin the new lease of life Calvin's mum Gertrude (Annette Bening) has now she's with bohemian stepdad Mort (Antonio Banderas). And she treats them with respect even while Calvin cringes with embarrassment, because Calvin lacks the empathy to understand how other people can be happy. 

In the darkest scene of the movie he reveals what she is and proceeds to use his typewriter to put her through a series of increasingly humiliating motions; only when he realises that what he's done is abominable does he set her free. And she is gone, and does not forgive him. He does not see her again. Because in the real world, if someone abused you that way, you would leave by night, without fanfare; you would escape and never go back. 

If the film ended there, perhaps I might like it better. But there's a coda, of course. Calvin learns his lesson and, replacing the typewriter, the symbol of his awkwardness and pretension, with a laptop, he writes a second book that is far more true and finds fulfilment through material success. The film ends with him meeting a Real Ruby, who does not know him except through his writing, and they strike up a conversation. He is given a second chance. Is this the ending Zoe Kazan wanted? It feels like the sort of ending that gets shot because the preview audiences hated it. 

Is this Ruby? Is this someone else who looks like Ruby? What are Calvin's mother and brother going to say when they meet her? If she's Ruby, only a real one, she doesn't remember any of what happened, and if she isn't, people are going to be very weird that Calvin has brought a second identical girlfriend to meet people. Aren't they? Yes, this is the ending of a film, and film endings don't have to make all that much sense because the film is ending, and the characters do not exist past its closure, but in a film as resolutely dedicated to being emotionally real, to being fair to its characters, this doesn't work. It neither makes sense as a resolution, nor is it true to the point of the film up to this point. It feels like a betrayal. 

Am I being unkind? Does Calvin deserve the chance to grow too, to make mistakes and learn from them? Of course. But does that need to be off the back of another human being’s very existence?