bechdel taser: spark this crap
Ruby Sparks. Ruby Sparks. Ruby fucking Sparks. Where to fucking start?
This is a film I had a strong aversion to seeing. Visceral, guttural, bilious. I studied Pygmalion myths in high school, so like Tim Winton, Kenneth Branagh takes on Shakespeare and all poetry, I like to keep that shit out of my personal life. Add in some manic pixie dream girl and Paul Dano and there is a heady combination of negatives adding up to me seeing a film solely because people told me I should write about it.
In the end, I bought a six-pack and promised myself that I could dive in if shit got too brain screamy. I lasted about half an hour before feeling the urge, but that was ten minutes after I realised I may be getting ill and should avoid alcohol. In the hour and ten minutes that followed, I squirmed, I tried to sleep, I took out my phone and I considered how to reward myself for putting my mind through such torment. I’ve never wanted to leave a film so urgently. But I stayed. I stayed for you.
I just don’t like the idea that a man can make a woman. This isn’t the first film I’ve seen this year where a man makes a woman. The Skin I Live In managed it really well, because it didn’t pretend to be anything other than a horror movie. That’s the only way you can play out this trope seriously, no matter how you subvert it. I’m guessing if you wanted to see Ruby Sparks, you’ve done so by now. If you haven’t, just don’t. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test and it also happens to be shit in every other regard.
Paul Dano is a writer, Calvin. He wrote a book as a precocious youth and can live off its profits, but he’s still working on his second. He doesn’t have any friends, and it’s a while since he’s had a girlfriend. He dreams of a girl and she comes into reality. The process of this happening—that first half hour—is cute, if grating. It’s around the time he throws a resisting Ruby over his shoulder when she gets mad at him that this turned south. Hell-level south.
Calvin can control anything about Ruby and is treated like a champ for deciding not to alter her beyond the lengthy character outline he first drew. We can tell, because his alpha brother suggests giving her bigger breasts, and he refuses. Slow claps.
As the film moves on, we’re shown and told how this fellow is not such a great guy. In one of the film’s most painful and overly long sequences, we visit Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas, much better as disturbed surgeon in The Skin I Live In, than as accented comic relief here). Calvin spends the whole trip being a dick in the face of an entire manic pixie family and when they return, Ruby is not pleased. She becomes more distant, and also a more fully rounded human, and he can’t deal with that. To the film’s credit, it’s quite happy to show him as more “anti” than “hero” in this section. We are taken on a very obvious journey of “ooooh, you shud nat do dat” as he changes Ruby. First he makes her very clingy, and we get to laugh at a girl being very clingy. Then he makes her… happy? I don’t know, she ups the “manic”, and we are supposed to laugh at that, too. He takes the great leap of realising what an awful idea it was to try to change a human. Slow claps.
Eventually, as they fight over her audacity to speak to other men, he tells her that he made her. She is sceptical, so we’re treated to an extended sequence which made my insides shift, of his proving his point. First he makes her snap her fingers. Then speak French. Then strip. Then crawl around like a dog. But, you know, she’s doing it in a trendy feminine dress, so it’s not sketchy or anything. Slow bile.
Calvin decides to set Ruby free. He writes in his story that she is no longer his creation. Instead of breaking up like a normal human, he gets to be the emancipator of another person. The character outline also happens to be a book, which he then leaves for Ruby, prior to having some feelings. In some abstract fridging, rather than seeing what happens when she is liberated from the Salinger-wannabe’s literary grasp, we watch him. We congratulate him on his emotional journey of realising that no one is perfect, even if you make them up yourself and that that’s a bit dissatisfying anyway. It was better when it was on Buffy. No claps.
Then, to reward Calvin, the film shows the Ruby book being published. It is called The Girlfriend and on its cover it features some lady-underwear. So, he’s wandering about, all emotionally mature and shit, and he comes across the same goddamn girl, reading his goddamn book, and she doesn’t goddamn well remember that he is basically her goddamn God. End.
Stranger Than Fiction was so much better than this shit. When Emma Thompson makes a real person—or, simply, realises he exists—she isn’t doing so because she can’t find a boyfriend. She can control his circumstances but it’s never suggested that she would or could alter his mood patterns. Even within the realm of her control, his realisation that he is a character, throughout the film, offers him more autonomy and ability to affect the outcome, than Ruby is ever given here. The book Emma Thompson’s character wrote is one I would probably read. The book Paul Dano wrote is one I would use to justify never reading another piece of fiction.
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