This article originally appeared on the now defunct online magazine Cultural Transmogrifier.
The film Ruby Sparks is largely about being a decent human being by recognizing and absconding latent narcissistic tendencies. Our protagonist Calvin Weir-Fields (played by Paul Dano) is a talented twenty-six-year-old writer living off the success of his first novel. Since his first book, he has failed to write anything exemplary and struggles to find inspiration. In an attempt to overcome his writer’s block, he imagines his ideal woman and begins writing about her. Pretty soon, he falls in love with his creation. Lucky for him, he wakes up one morning to find that the nonexistent love of his life is in his kitchen, making eggs.
The trouble with Calvin is that he is so self-involved, so confined to his own head, so resistant to the outside world that he completely isolates himself. He has no hobbies, no extracurricular activities, and doesn’t really have a job (sure, writing is a job, but it’s only a job if you actually write and he doesn’t—that is, not until he writes about Ruby Sparks). He has no real friends and allegedly has no interest in making friends. His only source of companionship comes from his dog, Scottie, and his older brother, Harry (Chris Messina). Calvin’s alienation is certainly depressing, but it’s difficult to be sympathetic once you realize that this alienation is largely self-induced. When Ruby (Zoe Kazan—also the film’s writer) tells him he doesn’t have any friends, he says he doesn’t need friends, he only needs her.
Calvin is stuck in a juvenile, Holden Caulfield-type mindset, causing him to be obstinately resistant to others. He struggles to develop real relationships because he cannot cope if and when people don’t respond to him in the way that he wants. When he and Ruby visit his parents, irritation with his family clouds him the whole weekend; when he’s not isolating himself in the tree house with a book, he’s hostile towards his mom (Annette Bening) and stepdad, Mort (Antonio Banderas), whom he yells at for good-naturedly making fun of Scottie.
When Calvin tells Ruby his mom didn’t always used to be this new-age, free-spirited individual, that she used to be boring, wear polos, and play golf, he grits his teeth, as though he’s trying not to yell, “What a phony!” How telling that early in the movie, Catcher in the Rye is sprawled open on his bed, worse for the wear after Scottie chews it up. Perhaps it’s even telling that Scottie chewed it up. It serves as a warning Calvin ignores: Stop emulating Holden Caulfield or be miserable forever! Also: You’re 26, not 16!
Like Holden, Calvin believes he’s pretty much the only person with a fucking clue, that pretty much no one knows what they’re doing and would be better off adhering to his own standards. So when Ruby begins to evolve beyond the fictional portrait he created of her into a real, dynamic human being, Calvin’s obstinate resistance begins to rear its ugly head again. Ruby sings while he reads, takes a painting class, makes friends and goes to bars, swims in her underwear, and decides she and Calvin would benefit from spending one night a week apart. Calvin subsequently loses his shit (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers).
For Calvin, Ruby—a figment of his imagination come to life—is initially the answer to his Holden Caulfield complex. After all, how do you live in a world where you only want to interact with people if they act according to a set of rules you’ve laid out and if you can guarantee that they’ll love and praise you? The only thing to do is create your own companion. Holden Caulfield couldn’t do it, but genius that he is, Calvin can. That’ll solve the problem. For a while. Because how happy can you be knowing that someone only loves you because you have the power to make them love you?
This film has been viewed as a critique on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: A woman who exists “to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” But unlike Garden State’s Andrew Largeman and Elizabethtown’s Drew Baylor, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not even what Calvin wants. Not really. Because the MPDG exists for men who want to change, but are scared, need encouragement, and need a lovely lady to hold their hand. Calvin doesn’t want to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. He doesn’t even want to go swimming. He’d rather hole himself up in a tree house and read a book, and he’d prefer to have his dream girl sit there with him while he reads, his own living breathing doll at his disposal, animate only when he wants her to be.
The fact that Calvin enters into a relationship with a figment of his imagination come to life suggests that he wants to date himself, as both his brother and his ex-girlfriend Lila (Deborah Ann Woll) point out. He couldn’t handle it when Ruby evolved beyond the character in his story into a real human being because he couldn’t handle her being herself rather than an extension of himself. And that’s what this movie seems to really be about—the disturbing narcissistic desire to enter into a relationship with one’s self. I fear that many of us are guilty of this on some level. Not just in romantic relationships, but in friendships, familial relationships, or even interactions with acquaintances and strangers. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we may wish life was a story we had the power to dictate and people were characters we had the power to control.
Every time we become hostile, upset, or perturbed when someone does something we don’t like (despicable behavior warranting such negative reactions aside), what does that mean? What if someone just did something that annoyed us? Did impressions of our dog, gave us a present we didn’t want, had speech patterns and catch phrases that were too distinct and repetitive? What if our significant other wanted to hang out with friends at a bar and we got upset? We’re upset because they’re not behaving the way we would like. We would prefer them to enact our own idealized version of them, which isn’t them at all. It’s a figment of our imagination, and by extension, us.
If we can accept people as they are, then maybe we can accept ourselves as well, and subsequently, not worry quite so much about whether or not others will accept us. Because if they don’t, we know they’re just wishing we would conform to some figment of their own imagination, and well, screw that.