Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Your Dream Lover Come True: Lessons from "Ruby Sparks"

Would you want to design your perfect partner?

The movie Ruby Sparks, written by Zoe Kazan and starring Kazan and Paul Dano, raises many issues about love, control, and fantasy. Most of what I will say about the movie was revealed in the trailer (such as the basic premise), but there may be slight spoilers. I won’t spoil the ending in which Samuel L. Jackson shows up and asks Kazan and Dano to join the Avengers—d’oh!—but I will allude to several later developments in the movie. (In all seriousness, I found the ending very surprising and somewhat disturbing, but in a good and effective way. One has to wonder if a monkey's paw was involved!)

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The premise of the movie is this: Calvin (Dano) is a writer struggling to find an idea for his second novel. He starts dreaming of a lovely girl (Kazan), and is inspired to write about her. He names her Ruby Sparks, develops her quirky character and back story—think Manic Pixie Dream Girl squared—and then finds himself falling in love with his creation, writing nonstop just to “be with” her. One day, he no longer has to write to be with her, for somehow she has come to life and is living in his apartment, apparently believing she has been there for some time.

Calvin has literally created his dream girl, whom other people can see and interact with as well. What’s more, after she appears, he can continue to craft and control her by writing new lines in his novel. He avoids doing this at first, since they are having a wonderful time—until she starts behaving unpredictably. She gets bored, she gets moody, she wants to meet other people, and so forth. In other words, she acts like a real person rather than the skeleton of the character Calvin wrote. So he begins to “adjust” her behavior by adding to his novel: for instance, when Ruby starts spending more time away from him than he likes, he writes that she misses him. But this works too well, and she refuses to leave his side and panics if he’s not touching her at every moment.

This is an incredibly thoughtful movie that leaves the viewer to consider a lot of issues, some central to the film and others merely glanced at. Here’s a few that came to mind for me:

1. I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy lately—I’ve been planning to write on it for a while, in fact—and this movie connected with and brought out many of those thoughts. Many of us fantasize about someone we know, or imagine our “dream love,” but Ruby Sparks takes this one step further: Ruby is Calvin’s fantasy come to life. Not only did he write her as his dream girl, he can also manipulate her actions and moods—not merely on paper, but as they live their lives together. With fantasy, however—the real kind that doesn’t come to life in your apartment—you are never surprised. You control the whole show, but that gets really old, really fast, even for a writer like Calvin. Many writers talk about being led by their characters, writing to find out (rather than determine) what their characters are going to do or say next. This shows that even those that truly do control the show like to feel that they don’t. (Until they get to the editing stage!) Control may seem attractive, and some indulge in it to a dangerous degree, but in the end most people find it counterproductive.

2. This also brings to mind how we idealize a new love, and explains why we’re so disappointed and dismayed when they turn out to be—well, human. Calvin expected Ruby to be his ideal dream girl forever—because he wrote her that way—and is disappointed when she begins behaving in ways he never intended. No matter how talented a writer is at fleshing out a character, a real person is much more complex than the writer can describe. As a result, Ruby behaves in ways Calvin never planned, but which may have been completely consistent with the way he wrote her. Ironically, this should have made her more interesting to him, but as pointed out above, all he wanted was to control her. (Late in the film, another character—not Samuel L. Jackson—hints at an aspect of Calvin’s personality that puts all this into perspective. I found it to be a revelation that, unfortunately, is not followed up on sufficiently, but nonetheless one I’d rather not reveal.) But a certain degree of spontaneity and unpredictability is what makes a relationship exciting and vibrant—you may never know what your partner is going to say or do, but you can look forward to it all the same.

3. The movie also speaks to the issue of whether you can “change” your partner, finding the diamond in the rough and then cutting and polishing to get the gem you always wanted. Calvin had a better shot at this than anybody in the real world can, but soon found it to be futile. Sure, he could change her moods and her actions, but usually with unintended results (such as the extreme clinginess—you have to see it to believe it). Unless he actually crafted her every movement and line of dialogue, at some point Ruby was going to act unpredictably. As he tries to “correct” one “flaw,” it exposed or created another one, which only required another intervention. Even with his fantastic powers over her, Calvin found himself unable to change Ruby to be exactly what he wanted—how can anybody hope to do that with a real person?

4. Finally, Calvin’s situation leads us to ask: do we really want to make someone love us? When we look at it this way, Ruby Sparks is an update of fairy tales involving love potions and spells. He doesn’t have to work to please her; if he makes her unhappy, he can just write a new line in his novel. Rather than trying to be the man she wants him to be, he makes her into the woman who “wants” the man he is. He learns far too late, however, that he is no longer satisfied to make her be happy—by writing her that way—he wants to make her happy—by doing things that will please her. More generally, Calvin takes Ruby for granted; he doesn't fully respect her as a person, because she is his creation, not his equal. Given his ability to manipulate her, he treats her not as a fully autonomous person, but more like a toy or a puppet to be enjoyed or ignored when he chooses. (This comes to a head near the climax of the movie.)

There aren’t many things I like more than an offbeat romantic movie—especially involving the life of a writer—that I keep thinking about long after the lights come on and the theater empties (or the DVD stops). If you see Ruby Sparks, please let me know what you think.

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A categorized list of some of my other PT posts can be found at my personal website here.

You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and my homepage/blog.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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