Some Thoughts on Ruby Sparks
Cathleen and I went to see Ruby Sparks Sunday night. I really liked it. I can’t decide if the trailer is either brilliant or awful considering how skillfully it disguises the movie as the kind of film it’s actually parodying. In fact, most of the people in the audience we saw it with seemed a little taken aback when the movie began to get darker and darker.
This darkness was probably the best part which leads to what was easily the film’s worst part; the ending. It seems that Zoe Kazan as a writer (she was also terrific in the title role) wasn’t willing to take the story to its logical conclusion, instead ending with closing scenes that were kind silly (if not outright troubling).
Still, I loved the first 90% of it or so and it was great to see a new Dayton and Faris movie (I will follow them to the ends of the earth for having given me the “Tonight, Tonight” video and some of my favorite Mr. Show film bits).
No one I’ve talked to has seen it, so I’ll just put my SPOILERY thoughts below…
Ok, so here’s the main problem with the ending; basically it lets Calvin off the hook. You can say that, on one level, Calvin represents every screenwriter and novelist who’s churned out awful two-dimensional ”quirky” female characters (the manic pixie dream girls) without actually realizing that women can be, y’know, people. As such, sure, he can learn his lesson and everyone can live happily ever after.
However, there seem to be a lot of other things going on under the surface that imply that he needs a lot more work before he deserves his happy ending.
Kazan’s script does a great job of implying all the reasons that Calvin has problems with women. We’re told that he was a nerdy teenager who suddenly became famous beyond his wildest imagination and has spent the last 10 years basically being able to fuck any literate woman he wants to purely because of his novel. While it’s implied that he hasn’t taken many (if any) women up on this offer, the constant attention from groupies has clearly warped his view of the fairer sex (just listen to the hateful spite Dano uses every time Calvin says the word “slut,” which, if I remember correctly, is a couple. Once to Ruby’s face). Add to this the fact that he’s still furious at his mother for moving on after his father’s death despite what appears to be her happy and healthy new (relatively) relationship.
And there’s also his ex-girlfriend (played by “only worthwhile part of True Blood” Deborah Ann Woll). The quick scene with Woll’s character confirms a lot of what we’ve been feeling about Calvin; he’s selfish, he’s controlling, he doesn’t actually care about the women he’s with, and he can’t stand for them to live any kind of life that he hasn’t “chosen” for them.
Ruby is obviously the personification of these problems, problems that are much more relatable and human than Kazan’s satirizing of a simple pop cultural archetype. These extra layers make the movie so much more interesting than the light Charlie Kaufman knock off it could have been and they also send us flying into the movie’s big climactic scene.
Unfortunately, the climax is actually too good for the ending Kazan chose.
After seeing Ruby flirting with his friend, Calvin takes her home. She tells him he can’t tell her what to do and he says he can.
“What are you going to do?” she asks. “Tie me up?”
There’s a pause between those two questions and I couldn’t have been the only one in the theater who thought the second one was going to be “Hit me?” Again, Kazan’s script is touching on some much darker themes than were expected. Calvin’s controlling nature has now reached a point where a movie that isn’t about magic would just show physical violence between the two.
But wait. This one actually does show physical violence. When Calvin proves to Ruby that he has control of her by typing that she can’t leave, the movie doesn’t use the same magic as before. She doesn’t suddenly not want to leave. No, she tries to leave and some force shoves her back. But it’s not some kind of silly, magical gust of wind. She simply gets shoved back as if Calvin was standing in the doorway and pushing his smaller girlfriend (whom, despite Dano’s unimposing physique, we’ve seen him lift up and carry against her will earlier) when she tries to disobey him. When he does this, Ruby looks as scared and hurt as if some abusive boyfriend had slapped her across the face for speaking back.
And, yet, 10 minutes later, this movie wants these two to have a happy ending? Not just that, it wants a new version of Ruby to be stuck in a new relationship with this guy without even having the benefit of knowing the danger?
Look, it’s fine if you want Calvin to learn a lesson. It’s fine if you want him to write a book and be successful. After all, whenever you introduce a writer with writer’s block in act one, we know by the denouement he’s going to be writing a brilliant manuscript about the movie’s plot he just lived (By the way, can someone make a supercut of every movie scene that’s attempted to depict writer’s block? I think there are hundreds and they’ll all be identical). But don’t force this girl back together with him. That’s not happy. That’s just cruel and creepy.
I don’t know. Maybe Kazan meant for the ending to be a little unnerving (“Don’t tell me how it ends.”). But it didn’t play like that.
So how should it have ended? I don’t know. Cathleen and I both said that we were expecting the climactic scene to go in a Twilight Zone-esque comeuppance ending. We both thought the typewriter was going to break when Calvin was banging the table. She thought Ruby was then going to vanish while I thought she was going to be stuck saying “You’re a genius! You’re a genius!” over and over again (By the way again, how great was that moment with her saying that and his little smile? So real and so well set up for the character. Of course he loves people using that word. So creepy.). However, while we were talking about these endings on the subway, I realized that both of them, while maybe more appropriate to where the story was going, would be even less satisfying from an audience standpoint.
The best possible ending I can come up with is to have Calvin write his book and then run into the new Ruby but not in a romantic context. Have him be with a new girlfriend, one who’s a talented writer herself to show that he’s learning to control his competitive, controlling tendencies. Something like that. I don’t know.
Anyway, I somehow ended up writing a book here about my problems with a movie I loved 90% of.
Ugh, I need to go to sleep.