Greek mythology first documented the trope about an artist’s creation becoming alive. Sculptor Pygmalion’s statue transformed from ivory into flesh. This curiosity and psychology complex concept re-surged in the Victorian era especially in conceits by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (b. 1856, d. 1950). Published in 1912, Pygmalion recast the narrative where an elite parvenu placates his boredom in participating in a wager. Can he train an uneducated flower girl with a horrid Cockney accent to be refined and presented as a lady to high British society? Variations on this motif appeared in musical theater and cinema culminating in George Cukor‘s My Fair Lady (1964) starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. The 80s entertained audiences with popular movies like Weird Science (1985) and Mannequin (1987), which toyed with this same idea. Fast-forwarding to 2012, screenwriter and actress playing eponymous title character Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan) provided the heft for Ruby Sparks (2012). Dayton and Faris allow the characters and plot to supercede fanciful settings. Kazan taps into a touching and truthful conflict people have about relationships, idolatry, and co-dependence.
A breezy young woman is silhouetted by a blinding sun. She calls to someone not known to the audiences yet. Awakened, an awkward young adult Calvin scampers out of bed. In keeping with J. D. Salinger lore, Calvin published a seminal work that establishes an impossible precedent to follow. Unlike Salinger, obscurity alludes Calvin in slick LA. Most of Calvin Weir-Fields’s interiors are starkly white and austere. His self-congratulating publisher and promoter Langdon Tharp, portrayed by the impeccable robust and scene-stealing Steve Coogan, harps for another novel. Short stories have filled the interim years and Calvin faces the blank, white page on his electronic typewriter with crippling trepidation.
Filling his otherwise lonely days, Calvin subjects himself to uncomfortable bonding with his older brother Harry (Chris Messina) and introspective prodding by therapist Dr. Rosenthal (timeless Elliott Gould). As if to force commingling, Kazan establishes a forced companion in the pairing of Calvin and dog Scottie (F. Scott Fitzgerald ode) that requires external attention and excursions outdoors. This mysterious woman reappears nightly in his dreams and acts as a muse for his writing. He decides to write about her. His mind dictates her back-story and endearing qualities. However, she transcends his imagination and inhabits his condo to the utter dismay of Calvin. He believes he has finally lost grasp of reality. Panicked he searches for witnesses to verify her existence. Upon a humorous confirmation, he presumably has his heart’s desire and there should be no space for pain or loneliness anymore. Only Harry knows the creative authority Calvin possesses over Ruby.
Kazan renders the complications that arise with this agency and how good intentions belie the sinister need to control. Calvin can wield his pen and reshape Ruby to fit what he supposes to be what he wants versus what is best. Having initially abated his development of Ruby, he unlocks his drawer and adds lines that immediately change the composition of her personality or skill set. This abused power resembles in some form the issues Dr. Frankenstein had about whether this monster could have a soul. Beyond Shelley, there is another Greek parallel in how goddess Minerva had been sired from the head of Jupiter. Ruby removed from his dream parameters fights against his constriction. She is not allowed to be her own person, and it depresses her. Since Calvin continues editing her to how he envisions, this points to his selfish behavior affirmed by an ex that audiences encounter near the film’s end. He had never been curious about her. His ideal had been a relationship with himself, but as proven in this Ruby experiment/aberration, this does not create a full self.
Calvin has to confront this nauseating truth; yet, not with as much grace as one would hope. To be fair, how he tumbles into self-actualization is human and thus powerful.
This great film makes one pause and reflect back upon what one may have considered ideal versus beauty in not being able to define and control situations, people, and the future. Only in that state of acceptance can the magic happen.