From Thin Air
by Jansen Musico
Ruby Sparks (2012)
D: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
S: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
If you want to play God, be a writer. Create a person out of thin air. Form her into the image and likeness of the woman of your dreams. Make her fulfill your every desire, no matter how impossible; she is imaginary, after all. Watch excitedly as she acts according to the words you write. Revel with satisfaction as you see her story unfold. Get drunk with the power you have over her. In fiction, you are God, she is a pawn, and no matter how reckless you get, it doesn’t matter.
But what if, in some inexplicable happenstance, she comes to life? What if, one day, you wake up to discover that’s she’s in your house, cooking you breakfast, wearing your clothes from the night before, and reminding you that you’re in a relationship together?
This is Calvin’s predicament. Calvin, a genius in the literary world with a bad case of writer’s block, somehow manages to write his dream girlfriend to life. In his eyes, she’s perfect. She’s carefree, always interested, and always interesting. Calvin gets enamored by her, devoting his days getting to know the object of his creation. It isn’t until their honeymoon stage ends that things start to get a little fuzzy.
Zoe Kazan’s Ruby Sparks offers a wonderfully skewed view into romantic relationships. She focuses on the one-sided kind where the self-centered and socially inept Calvin is the central figure. He is an antihero, despicable and lovable at the same time. The character is made even more endearing by Paul Dano, whose strong performance merits applause. His Ruby, played by Kazan herself, is equally brilliant, pushing manic, depressive, and pixie in places Zooey Deschanel can only dream of.
Although the film falls into this niche, it is able to differentiate itself from its better-known contemporaries. Here, the dream girl is no longer the one calling the shots. The roles are reversed, and reversed drastically. Ruby is an unwilling marionette, with Calvin tugging on her strings. This shift of power creates a fresh dynamic, one that leads to an effective and dark climax, proving that the film isn’t just another off-kilter romantic mumblecore flick.
Notes on Freewill and Choice
Kazan knows how to engage her audience. Instead of filling them with fluff and factoids, as most flicks in the same genre do, she whets their intellect. Ruby literally walking into Calvin’s life causes an early tension. Is he or isn’t he mentally unstable? Is she or isn’t she real? Though these questions are resolved as quickly as they are brought up, Kazan already succeeds in capturing her viewers.
It is interesting to note, at this point, an amusing similarity between the film and Bill Watterson’s comic Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson’s Calvin is an eight year-old boy, who’s wise above his years but is unwilling to yield to routinary concepts. He has a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, whom he dreams into existence. Whether this was intentional on Kazan’s part, is subject to film geek debate.
From the get-go, the premise is quirky: a fictional character comes to life. It’s also reminiscent of Helm and Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction. Both films toy with the idea of freewill, the fate of one character resting on another one’s whims. They are similar in that aspect, but different in terms of character involvement. Kazan’s Calvin is more invested in his creation. Ruby is more than just some random stranger to him. She’s his girlfriend. He’s more emotionally invested.
Kazan makes no effort in concealing her thesis on relationships. Through Calvin, she takes advantage of Ruby’s malleability. With every change in Ruby’s personality, the relationship setups change, none of which are ever perfect. Though Ruby may be the idealized version of the person Calvin wants to be with, she is still his creation. Though he might have the power to control her actions, it does not guarantee a change in how he feels. In the end, Kazan poses an unspoken thought: perhaps it’s time for Calvin to stop writing Ruby’s story and start writing his own.