Thursday, August 2, 2012

Love: Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks is what happens when Stranger than Fiction gets a little intoxicated and runs into a cloying, cute, needy (500) Days of Summer belting out "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" at a bar's Wednesday karaoke night and (500) Days of Summer blinks like a plastic doll and says "I love how meta you are, it's like you're a magical fairy! Do you wanna go to my place and make out and knit and watch a Godard movie?"  and Stranger than Fiction is drunk, so it seems like a good idea in the moment so it goes and they make out and then one thing leads to another and (500) Days of Summer is like "oh, my roommate is Charlie Kaufman's twee fake twin brother, do you mind if he snuggles with us?" and somehow (500) Days of Summer gets pregnant and a child is born and it's raised by the three of them because everyone is too chill to get a DNA test and they name that child Ruby Sparks because of course they would.  That sums it up perfectly, really, but the shorthand version is this:  Ruby Sparks is a too cute, occasionally clever, woefully twee attempt at a thesis on the problematic facts surrounding the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  While its goal is admirable and it's smart enough to comment directly on its own issues, the blunt fact is that in trying to make a movie on the topic of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Zoe Kazan has merely managed to transform herself into a new one.   
In his now famous review of Elizabethtown, critic Nathan Rabin laid down the definition of the MPDG as existing "solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures" [via AV Club].  This was his description of the Kirsten Dunst character in that film, and has since been applied to any number of half-baked female characters who seem written for towards that particular purpose.  In Ruby Sparks, actress/screenwriter Zoe Kazan takes the problematic idea behind these characters and runs with it.  Her film is the tale of a sensitive writer named Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) who is plagued by his own early success to the point that he's broodingly unable to write something new, enjoy life, make friends, or effectively communicate with people other than his brother (Chris Messina).  

When Calvin's shrink (Elliot Gould) advises that he write a short, deliberately horrible piece on the mysterious girl he's concocted in his dreams, Calvin becomes so into spending time with his fictional character that the floodgates on his writer's block open wide and release a novel-sized manuscript on a girl his brother quickly (and smartly) tells him has none of the qualities of a "real person."  It doesn't matter. Calvin is in love with the Ruby (Kazan) of his dreams, and one morning he wakes up to find her manifested in his house, in the kitchen, making breakfast and asking, doe-eyed, why he's acting so weird.  She's real.  He can control her by typing something on a page.  It's the ultimate wish-fulfillment and a dose of indulgent male fantasy that would be incredibly offensive if Kazan and directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) weren't fully aware of the misogynistic undertones.  
Thankfully, they are, but that doesn't mean the film is without its faults.  Ruby Sparks is -if taken with a grain of salt- a perfectly charming, safe, generally intelligent romantic comedy. Dano and Kazan are really quite good in their individual roles, and while the stellar supporting cast is woefully underused, they elicit a few laughs from the crowd.  Just below the surface, however, there's a thesis tangled to the point that it will endlessly preoccupy anyone who's ever read Jezebel or been thrown into gender theory class.  Kazan appears to be genuinely attempting to slowly pull back the curtain on Ruby's MPDG-tendencies.  She wants to destroy the idea and prove the superficiality of these characters, that much is clear.  Zoe Kazan doesn't like the MPDG archetype (and why should she?),  and the film wants Calvin to realize that the girl he wrote cannot exist, and that when he attempts to control her he creates someone flat, improbable, and irritating. His edits destroy what he most loves in an otherwise fully dimensional, complicated person.

It's a nice idea, and Kazan's screenwriting is pretty decent. Unfortunately, she doesn't allow the story to go where it needs to or to get past the twee.  Ruby Sparks never gets dark, deep, or weird enough to successfully subvert the cliches Kazan wants to kill.  While Ruby does have her own personality beyond her surface quirkiness, the problem is largely that Kazan isn't quite sure how to write a character powerful enough to actually step out of the doll box, and when she tries to, Ruby still conforms to rather lackluster traits associated with 'lady problems'.

When Kazan gives Ruby her own agency she becomes a sort of miserable version of "the moody girlfriend" who's "unhappy in the relationship" or deliberately hurtful or depressed to the point that she just wants to watch reality TV marathons while slumped on the couch in her pajamas.  Her 'real girl' traits are primarily made up of those that merely negatively impact Calvin instead of positively advancing or strengthening Ruby.  She's always in Calvin's shadow.  He is the writer.  He is the talent.  He is the success.  He is the literate, intelligent, psychologically complicated individual. Yet, while he himself is a sort of stereotype, comparatively, Ruby is still just a Summer: a girl who can paint but who doesn't, who has none of her own successes, ambitions, or independence, who likes interesting things but isn't particularly interesting herself.  She has real-person emotions. We feel for her, yes.  And the treatment of the relationship is worthy of discussion, certainly, but while we get to see the 'idea' of Ruby become complicated, we never get to see Ruby the person really take off on her own.  She's a series of well-coordinated outfits, flighty 'let's jump in the pool with our clothes on' moments, and 'she makes a great meatloaf' asides.  No one involved in the film seems to understand that it takes more than a mercurial temperament and a Pinterest account to draw out a flesh and blood woman.  And that, my friends, makes an otherwise intriguing, enjoyable film into something less than.  Good on Zoe Kazan for pinpointing the problem, too bad the solution is so hard to articulate.







8 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed your review, its well written, thought provoking, intelligent and concise, I'm so glad I found your site! When I first heard about Ruby Sparks (I haven't seen it yet, but will) I was very glad to find out it wasn't going to be some generic frat-boy comedy starring Rob Schneider or Ryan Reynolds, as the concept seems to set itself up for that, with the protagonist making the Ruby character be some nymphomaniac supermodel played by Elisha Cuthbert or someone, so the fact they took a quainter direction gives me hope.

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    1. Oh man, when you put it that way, the problems with this version all but disappear. Let's just hope some idiot executive doesn't decide to run with this concept and make the nympho supermodel version of Ruby Sparks. YIKES.

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  2. Very well written review with lots of knowledgeable references. I will probably give this a rental. Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano are both great.

    I have awarded you a Liebster award if you want to participate go to http://northwestmovies.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-liebster-blog-award.html#more

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    1. Yeah, Zoe Kazan can be a little much at times, but when she's sitting comfortably in an indie she's right at home.

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  3. Sad that this is just barely on the love side. I still really want to see it. Hopefully it comes around here soon. Glad your back to blogging, this site is really beautiful.

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    1. I didn't disappear for too long, did I? July was a little sparse, I suppose. Never give up, never surrender and what not.

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  4. Although I appreciate Kazan's intent to want the subvert or change the idea of a manic pixie dream girl. I don't necessarily agree with her critique of the definition, in fact, I find she entirely misses the point of the definition (which is in itself a critique of trope). Now mind you, it's possible that I read her quote wrong, but when she calls the mpdg misogynistic, she is more so critiquing the definition given by Nathan Rabin.

    If anything, the definition Rabin gives is actually critiquing the misogyny of the trope seen in various literatures and films. All of a sudden it is reductive to offer definition that specifies what exactly said trope is? Is the definition of "noble savage" a constraint on characters that exist as means to serve the feelings and needs of colonialist?

    By subverting a trope, you're therefore not that trope anymore.

    I agree with your critique, as I find Kazan didn't really add or fully realize the intentions of what she wanted to do with Ruby.

    In the words of Clementine, "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours."

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  5. Just finished watching this movie and really enjoyed it. I actually think the fact that Ruby isn't a fully fleshed out woman was perfectly apt for the film. The fact is, she wasn't a "real" woman to begin with. The way I interpreted the film, she didn't actually exist before Calvin wrote her. In addition, I love that the film doesn't go deep and dark with more substantial imperfections for Ruby. When you think of Calvin's character, he wouldn't let it go very far before reeling her back in. To me, this fit well with the story. When Ruby asks for the bare minimum of breathing room in the relationship, he immediately starts to think about changing her back to suit his desires. Good review though, it also got me thinking of Summer too.

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