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 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 begins writing about a young woman he made up and subsequently falls in love with her. 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, 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). We see just how lacking Calvin’s social life is when his brother tells him to call a friend to help him cope with a potential mental breakdown; having no idea who to contact, Calvin ends up calling an old high school acquaintance. The recipient does not even remember Calvin initially, suggesting that they haven’t been in contact since graduating high school, and that they didn’t even have much contact while in high school.
Calvin’s alienation is certainly depressing, but it’s difficult to be sympathetic once you realize that this alienation is largely self-induced. When his mom invites him and Ruby (Zoe Kazan) to come visit for the weekend, he lies and says he can’t, so we can infer that he has been alienating his parents for years. When Ruby tells him he doesn’t have any friends, he says he doesn’t need friends, he only needs her.
Apparently, Calvin is caught between his longing for human companionship and his aversion to mankind. He bought his dog Scottie to make friends, but this plan backfires because “Scottie doesn’t like people.” But really, Calvin doesn’t like people. Better yet, Calvin doesn’t like himself, and he fears other people won’t like him either. But by avoiding social contact and telling himself that he doesn’t like people (or that Scottie doesn’t like people—the layers of defense mechanisms run deep), he defends himself against rejection.
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). He yells at his stepdad for good-naturedly making fun of Scottie, and even gets mad when Mort tries to give him a wooden chair he made himself.
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 head again. Ruby sings while he reads, decides to take a painting class, makes friends and goes to bars with them, decides she and Calvin would benefit from spending one night a week apart, and swims in her underwear at a party. Calvin freaks out and literally controls her actions (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoiling too much).
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’re resistant to everyone? Where you only want to interact with people if they act according to a set of rules you’ve laid out? If you only want to be around people 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 someone is only behaving a certain way because you have the power to dictate their behavior? How happy can you be, knowing that someone only loves you because you have the power to make them love you? How happy can you be when anxiety lurks around the corner, just waiting to lock its fingers around your neck in the middle of the night so you can scarcely breathe as you look over at your sleeping beloved, forcing you to ask yourself “Would she love me if I didn’t make her?”
The real solution of course, is to accept other people for who they are, and to accept the possibility that they might not like you. But Calvin just doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t want to change.
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 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 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.
It’s interesting that Calvin enters into a relationship with a figment of his imagination come to life because it 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 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 is about—the disturbing narcissistic desire to enter into a relationship with oneself. And I think many of us are more guilty of that than we realize. Not just in romantic relationships, but in friendships, familial relationships, or even interactions with acquaintances and strangers. On some level, whether we’re aware of it or not, many of us 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 act the way we want them to act, to be our idealized version of them, which isn’t them at all. It’s a figment of our imagination, and by extension, us.
So rather than be resistant to people who aren’t exactly our cup of tea—maybe they’re too bubbly, maybe they’re too sullen, too arrogant, or abrasive—stop and consider why you’re being resistant. As long as the person’s not an asshole, why be perturbed by someone who is just being themselves? Why not accept them as they are, rather than wishing them to be the way we want? If we can do that, accept others as they are, then maybe we can accept ourselves as well, and subsequently, not worry quite so much about whether others will accept us or not. 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.