Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a young novelist who achieved immense success with his first book but is now struggling with his next project. He likes to write old-school with a typewriter but usually finds himself sitting in front of a blank page for hours on end until he is distracted by his dog Scotty, his agent or his brother, Harry (Chris Messina). It’s clear Calvin is trying to work through the issues that plague those who find great success at such a young age. He has not had a relationship in years, sees a therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould), regularly and finds public appearances and speeches to be overwhelming.
And then one evening he dreams about a girl, though he cannot see her face thanks to the beautiful sunlit background that merely enhances her silhouette. The girl intrigues him to where he mentions her to Dr. Rosenthal and as a therapeutic measure, Dr. Rosenthal asks Calvin to write him something, preferably something bad. This triggers another dream for Calvin involving the young woman, except this time Calvin sees her face and has a conversation with her about his dog Scotty. Her name is Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) and she is exactly the kind of muse Calvin needed to reinvigorate his writing career. So he begins to write about Ruby and their fictional life together.
Calvin is well aware that he is inserting himself into his own work and he readily admits he is falling in love with a woman who does not exist. Until she does, of course. Excited by his half-finished manuscript, Calvin races off to meet his agent to show him the new novel, but then he finds a woman standing in his kitchen making breakfast. It’s Ruby… and she is real.
There was fear for a moment that the movie would teeter on the question of whether or not Calvin has had a mental break and that Ruby is all in his head. Thankfully this tired plot device is dealt with very quickly, which made me eager to watch the rest. Kazan, as Ruby is quirky and charismatic, shifting so effortlessly into whatever version of Ruby Calvin decides he needs at any moment. There is definitely a question of morality here, one that Harry brings up briefly before encouraging Calvin to take advantage of a situation that so many men would die to find themselves in. A woman who can and will do anything a man wants from her.
What are Calvin’s responsibilities and obligations to Ruby? Just because he could control her, does that mean he should? Calvin puts the Ruby Sparks pages away, refusing to write anymore because he’s happy with the Ruby that he has. At least until she begins to become a fully realized person. She has devoted so much of her life to Calvin and she finds herself lonely. She wants to take art classes. She wants to spend a night a week in her own apartment. She makes friends. Calvin’s insecurities and fears that Ruby will now leave him prompt him to put another page in his typewriter to redirect Ruby’s desire and affection back toward him. As he tells Harry, he wants Ruby to be happy but he wants to be the reason she’s happy.
Dano manages to make Calvin’s narcissism compelling. Despite the potentially icky ramifications of what he can do, his desire for love and acceptance for who he is, rather than his success, is sympathetic enough that you want to see him grow as a person just as Ruby does. She may have come from his imagination, but they cannot be the same person. There is definitely a control issue here. Calvin wants Ruby to himself, for her to exist solely for him, which she did when he first began to put her down on paper. But creation grows and takes on a mind of its own, as we see with Ruby.
Calvin’s desperate attempts to change Ruby’s personality and narrative to include him begin to take its toll on Ruby, who can’t understand why she’s so up and down all the time. She’s clearly beginning to suffer. The film effectively delves into the consequences of screwing with another person’s mind to maintain some semblance of perfection. Honestly, Ruby Sparks teeters on something of a psychological thriller towards the end, with Calvin coming across as a controlling sociopath refusing to release his creation from his madness. It’s a heartbreaking, but necessary sequence that profoundly impacts both Ruby and Calvin.
The script, written by Zoe Kazan, is witty and clever, and despite only a sluggish moment or two, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris keep the film well-paced and focused. Real-life couple Dano and Kazan have some amazing chemistry, and both give impressive performances that manage to keep the film grounded in the midst of all the fantasy it invokes. Ruby Sparks is a metaphorical romantic dramedy with an intriguing, thought-provoking premise. It slyly subverts the rom-com genre in an incredibly refreshing way and is definitely worth a watch, even if you’re not a fan of the genre.