Warning: Ruby Sparks is not a date movie. Don’t be fooled by the breezy, indie-quirky trailers. It will not make you feel warm inside. It will not put you and your date in a romantic mood. It will disturb you, and that’s a good thing, because Ruby Sparks asks questions rarely addressed in movies today: Should artists have control over their creations, or do the best works of art have lives of their own? Is the desire to control the ones we love the ultimate form of egotism? Do we have to let people go before we can love them?
The premise of Ruby Sparks reads like a frothy “leap-of-faith” confection along the lines of Big or I Married A Witch: A young novelist, Calvin, invents his dream girl, Ruby, on paper. One day she materializes in his apartment as his live-in girlfriend. (Calvin and Ruby are played by real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, who is also the film’s screenwriter.) Calvin’s disbelief is quelled when he finds out that others can see Ruby as well. Being unlucky at love in the past, he decides to go along with the arrangement, confiding only in his older brother Harry that Ruby is merely an invention of his imagination.
It also turns out that whatever Calvin types about Ruby on his Smith Corona instantly becomes true. Harry thinks this is the greatest thing since sliced bread because, unlike other men, Calvin has the power to “tweak” his mate’s imperfections. (Harry even suggests that Calvin type up an increase in Ruby’s physical assets.) Calvin, perfectly happy with Ruby as she is, promises to never tamper with her and locks the manuscript that invented her in a drawer.
What sounds like a romantic comedy (and to be sure there are many funny moments at this stage of the film) now darkens. Foreboding fills the air. Ruby seems too fully drawn to be nothing more than a writer’s invention, even if Calvin supposedly wrote the Great American Novel at age 19. Our misgivings stem, in large part, from a breathtaking performance by Zoe Kazan. Her endearingly odd Ruby is like nothing we’ve seen in the movies since Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.
Ironically, this “invented” person is more authentic and multi-dimensional than any of the “real” characters in the film. The way directing couple Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris present this fantasy, in a disconcertingly straight-ahead style, grounds us. There is no magic lighting, no harp trills to clue us in that this is a fantasy.
Presented this way, with deadpan realism, the fantasy seems destined to go awry. Sure enough, Calvin soon gives in to the temptation to make “adjustments” to Ruby’s behavior. He unlocks the drawer and resumes work on his manuscript, this time typing commands rather than character sketches. This proves a slippery slope, as adjustments quickly turn into obsessions. The creator, our Dr. Frankenstein, is revealed as the true monster, and Ruby Sparks (the movie) reveals itself as a chilling, fascinating and, yes, disturbing cautionary tale about the fine line between invention and control.
The film does end with an upbeat twist, but by then it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s imagined.
If you ignore my warning and take a date to see Ruby Sparks and afterwards you happen to have a long, in-depth discussion about the film and the issues it raises, you may have found someone who’s worth another date. And if the film teaches you anything, you’ll be interested in who that person is, not in who you want that person to be.