Ruby Sparks couldn’t have arrived in theaters at a more opportune time. Three weeks ago, Katie Holmes displayed an improbable sort of femmepowerment, when — as the media narrative goes — she fled her powerful, oppressive husband to save herself and her daughter from his nefarious cult. At the time, Holmes’ heroism seemed a much-needed counterweight to this summer’s most conspicuous romanticization of male dominance in Fifty Shades of Grey, a best-selling novel in which a naïve college grad finds ecstasy under a millionaire’s sexual tutelage, ceding authority even over which foods she can eat and how many hours she can sleep. The book’s runaway popularity inspired Newsweek to explain “why surrender is a feminist dream.”
Ruby Sparks lands somewhere in between these poles. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team behind 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, this update of Pygmalion replaces the professor with a writer (Paul Dano, as Calvin) and the flower girl with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay). Erstwhile wunderkind Calvin has been struggling for a decade with writer’s block: as the movie begins, he finds inspiration in a dream about a quirky, doe-eyed, artistically inclined but professionally nonthreatening sprite he names Ruby Sparks.
When his narcissistic, decidedly unoriginal fantasy comes to life (the film never explains how or why), Calvin is initially scared that he might be insane. The film dispels his worry by showing that his married older brother Harry (Chris Messina) can see Ruby too. Harry also helps Calvin to feel okay about the fact that her sole purpose in life is to amuse and adore her creator. It’s not long before the couple settles into co-habitation, their love-dovey courtship adorned with soft light and acoustic love songs.
All of this is categorically gross, since the film is asking us to root for a couple whose only departure from, say, Lars and his “Real Girl,” is Ruby’s ability to blink on her own. Calvin doesn’t wonder how his typewriter gave life to his figment (and yes, he uses a manual Olympia, because he’s the kind of pretentious twit who thinks typewriter = novelist). With Harry’s encouragement, he does, however, begin to test how much power he has over Ruby.
On learning that his power is basically godlike, Calvin considers his options, and then resolves to let Ruby lead her own life. That resolution is tested when their relationship goes south, as the girl Calvin dreamt up realizes he’s a joyless, self-important creep. He discourages her efforts to make friends, get a job or have any sort of life beyond him, making her depressed and lonely. The final straw comes in a trip to the groovily bohemian home of Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas), a crucial and wonderful detour that provides the film with much needed laughter and levity (not to mention aquamarine caftans), while also marking a sharp downward turn in Ruby and Calvin’s romance.
When Calvin recognizes that his ideal girl is pulling away from him, he dusts off his typewriter and resumes clacking away, clumsily destabilizing Ruby’s mood to make her needier, then more manic — anything to get her to stay. On realizing that she’ll leave him no matter how many times he changes her, Calvin turns desperate, and in a stomach-turningly uncomfortable scene, he exercises his control over his girlfriend-cum-character in increasingly degrading ways, letting loose all his repressed rage. His horrifying manipulation of her body is all the more violent because of its intimacy. He doesn’t just hurt Ruby. He hurts her in the ways that he knows will cut the deepest.
This scene, emotionally ghoulish as it is, doesn’t make Ruby Sparks a bad movie. That happens in the last few minutes, when a tacked-on epilogue gives Calvin a much sunnier, slimier ending than he has any right to deserve. If the film has previously excoriated Calvin’s misogyny, watching its conclusion is not unlike watching a battered woman articulate to her victimizer how he’s abusing her, then return to him, even love him, immediately afterward.
My Fair Lady, perhaps the most famous Pygmalion adaptation, does this too: Henry Higgins refers to Eliza Doolittle as “this thing that I created out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden,” and then she falls into his arms under swelling music. But at least My Fair Lady is interested in its heroine’s fate. Ruby Sparks is so focused on contriving a resolution for its wretched male protagonist that it loses track of titular character.
Kazan may have set out to address what she calls a “really superficial way of looking at women.” And her film certainly does so — rather effectively — until the last 10-15 minutes. But the ease with which it absolves Calvin’s self-centeredness and its embrace of a cheap, unearned optimism end up celebrating exactly the type of docile, wispy femininity it might have debunked.