Friday, March 14, 2014

Believable character change and likable in Ruby Sparks

I recently watched Ruby Sparks, the updating of Weird Science and parodic deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl archetype.

Or something.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a sad sack of a genius, wunderkind author: his first book is beloved, but he's never been able to follow it up. The film doesn't really pull punches about Calvin's sad-sackdom: his brother is a successful professional (lawyer?) who has a good but realistic marriage and whose primary hobby seems to be hanging out with Calvin and getting him to go to the gym. Calvin is friends with some other famous novelists and has a supportive (and demanding) agent. And he's got a therapist who lets him vent about his ex-girlfriend and gives him a stuffed animal to cuddle. Calvin lives in a nice house, has a cute dog, and apparently is well-supplied with typewriter ribbons, since he's still typing on one of those. Also, girls throw themselves at him.

And he can't write.

What do we call a character who has every opportunity but can't get anything done? We might call him a loser, or a sad sack, or depressed, or lazy, or traumatized. Is this a flaw in him we can identify with? A flaw that makes him unlikeable? Or something that was done to him?

Ruby Sparks doesn't exactly want to pathologize Calvin by diagnosing and dosing him, which leaves us with someone who has an unidentifiable situation for most people (he's a wunderkind, with a beloved first book and/or a wealthy family that apparently allows him to live a life of relative luxury) with a semi-identifiable problem (he's blocked, procrastinating, self-loathing, whatever--which is why the problem is only semi-identifiable, because it's only semi-identified by the movie).

Which means that we're watching a movie about someone we don't really like.

Eventually, he's confronted by his problems--his ex-girlfriend points out that he's a self-centered jerk, he uses his magical writing power for completely self-centered reasons by turning Ruby from a person into a puppet for his amusement. And he... changes?

I mean, that's what the movie should do, structurally: take an anti-hero or man with a flaw and allow him to fix himself. That's what the movies wants us to believe in some ways: he gives Ruby her freedom, finishing his book and putting it out into the world, to do its own thing.

And yet, it's not really believable and Calvin has already built up so much ill-will that it's hard to give him a break here. On top of that, it doesn't help that he doesn't actually pay any price or give anything up to make things right: he writes a book, keeps his house, gets along with his family, and even gets the girl again in the end.

So, in a way, I found it hard to get into and harder to swallow.

Think of another movie that swirls around similar issue: Scott Pilgrim. That movie/comic does something smart in making Scott likable and then confronting him with his issues in a way that recasts his protagonist status--and then allows him to fix them. Or take 500 Days of Summer: another likable schmo, with a narration and heightened reality to give us some distance from him, whose problem is easily sketched out and whose course runs him through a ringer of punishment.

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