Socially inept boy meets cute, oddball girl. Boy woos girl. Despite his self-absorbed neuroses, girl loves boy just the way he is. Girl doesn’t change, ever. Through the awesome power of her unending love, boy realizes his flaws, learns to embrace life’s infinite mysteries, and becomes a man.
You may be surprised to learn that this is not the story of Ruby Sparks. While this movie is very much inspired by that story — call it a finger-wagging satire — it’s too self-aware to be immediately lumped together with those clichés. Even when it falls into many of the same traps as what it’s trying to skewer, the characters in Ruby Sparks are still struggling with conflict, and changing as a result. (And those changes aren’t always for the better.) This movie is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if sheep wore purple leggings and retro-hip sundresses.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why the Zoe Kazan-penned romance could be mistaken for another twee drip. Calvin (Paul Dano), a wunderkind author who wallowed through his 20s after writing a bestselling novel, is a tired ideal of the sensitive jerk. He’s agoraphobic, disdainful of attention, and hides his narcissism under a veneer of shy humility. Ruby Sparks (Kazan) is literally the girl of his dreams: She appears in his sleeping mind, a giggling and radiant angel silhouetted by sunlight. When he wakes up, he starts to write — on a typewriter, natch — and doesn’t stop until he has reams and reams of her on paper. He invents Ruby Sparks, and then, miraculously, she appears.
This premise, while eye-catching, is not that sort that invites subtlety. Calvin cooked up a real-live girl and he can control her with his words, and Ruby Sparks pulls that thread to an extreme. When Ruby begins to pull away, he strikes her down with crippling depression and separation anxiety. After that becomes too much of a bother, he gives her blissful joy. He’s emotionally manipulating Ruby not only to keep her close, but to avoid the tough feelings that bubble up when the love of his life is more than a puppet. He simply can’t acknowledge her as a person with her own wants and needs.
By addressing these problems, Kazan is challenging an awful lot about the contemporary romance movie — and, impressively enough, she’s doing it within the problematic confines of the genre itself. Ruby is a cute oddball. Calvin is socially inept. But, as Kazan painfully explains, those are not defining characteristics. They’re small parts of a whole. When those illusions shatter — and in Ruby Sparks, they shatter in an extremely disturbing way — we’re left to consider the differences between what we love and why we love. Calvin loves the image of Ruby in his mind, but can’t reconcile that selfish creation with the woman who was born out of it. He’s just too self-interested to realize what’s at stake.
Kazan’s honesty, however, it not enough to make Ruby Sparks work. After smartly picking apart tropes, the movie indulges in a sticky-sweet narrative that rings false against its refreshing self-awareness. Calvin’s gross misconduct is never effectively resolved, and instead, he’s given the same tired montage of maturation that seems to land on every man in a romance. Ruby escapes her plight, but still exists as the framework of a girl dreamed up on a typewriter. When the credits roll, we’re left with a half-baked satire that couldn’t answer its own questions. It asked them, though, which is better than nothing.