Relationships: It takes two. Well, it does if you’re monogamous. Indie rom-com Ruby Sparks and psychological drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things both use depressed, stuck-in-their-heads male protagonists to show us what fiction gets wrong about relationships, as presented in the surreal. Their respective writers, Zoe Kazan and Charlie Kaufman, tackle the manic pixie dream girl trope and confront the dangers of living in your own head.
Ruby Sparks follows Calvin (Paul Dano) a one hit-wonder novelist suffering from writer’s block when he begins to dream of a woman – at his therapist’s suggestion, he writes about her. One day the woman of his imagination, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) materialises and their real life romance begins. It’s a straight-forward rom-com plot line that we’ve seen before in films like Garden State and Elizabethtown – a depressed, struggling male protagonist meets a manic pixie dream girl – a woman who is messy, carefree, sexy but goofy – who will change the male romantic lead’s perspective on life. In his creation of her, Calvin says Ruby was “kicked out of highschool for sleeping with her art teacher, or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet”; “She always, always roots for the underdog”; “Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes”; “Her last boyfriend was 49. The one before was an alcoholic.” My favourite of his dictations is: “She’s complicated. It’s what I like best about her.”
Upon reading the beginnings of Calvin’s manuscript, his brother Harry (Chris Messina) says, “Women aren’t going to want to read this: Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real. Period […] You haven’t written a person.” This line perfectly sums up the point of the film. In a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, Kazan says, “I was thinking about the way women are sometimes portrayed in the movies, and in particular I was thinking about when men write women [… we] start our relationships with an idea of the other person and then they slowly become more real to us.” It’s idolisation versus real expectations.
Instead of the usual break-up and make-up, because Calvin has written Ruby, he can change her as he pleases by altering the manuscript. During the film’s climax, after Ruby has tried to live her own life and make her own mistakes – she has shown some sense of humanity – Calvin won’t have it. An argument after Ruby flirts with Calvin’s charming novelist friend Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan) allows this romance to become a horror, peeling back the warmth of the fantasy to fully reveal Calvin’s emotionally abusive behaviour. Ruby says, “You don’t get to decide what I do,” to this Calvin responds, “Wanna bet.” It is deeply unsettling, cold and calculating.
Australian culture critic Scarlett Harris, calls their relationship “the extreme in the ultimate spin on intimate partner abuse.” While this scene is the most bold example of abuse in the film, gaslighting and subtler forms of manipulations are prevalent throughout. With her in front of him, he adds to the manuscript, making it impossible for her to have any free will. He writes that she can’t leave – she tries, but an invisible force pushes her back into the room with him. He makes her speak French, strip and sing, act like a dog, tell him “I love you. I’ll never leave you. I’ll love you forever and ever,” over and over again. She repeats with desperation, “You’re a genius,” genius being a word Calvin outright claimed he resented several times in the film. She screams his words, exhausting herself as he bangs his fists on his desk until neither of them can bear. Eventually, he does let her go, realising the damage that he’s done, he writes “She was no longer Calvin’s creation. She was free.” At the end of the film, Calvin writes a successful novel about this relationship and meets a woman who looks just like Ruby, reading his book in the park, from there it is suggested that another romance begins.
Much like Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in (500) Days of Summer, by the end of the film, despite going through an extremely formative relationship he doesn’t really learn his lesson. In discussing his role, Gordon-Levitt says of Tom, “He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies.” In their study From Love at First Sight to Soul Mate, scholars Veronica Hefner and Barbara J. Wilson, explore the impact on young people’s expectations on relationships due to popular romantic comedies, finding that “the romantic ideal in this sense is a set of beliefs about the power of love and the perfection of romance […] generally comprised of the following four themes: Love can overlook flaws; love can seek out that one perfect mate; love can happen instantaneously; and love can overcome all obstacles.” In the case of both Ruby Sparks and (500) Days of Summer the men still seek these impossible ideals packaged in a single woman, rather than realistic, nurtured relationships. In ITOET, on the other hand, Kaufman explores a similar issue not in a single moment, but in a lifetime of failure.
Kaufman’s use of surrealism, the psychological thriller genre and a looser structure do not lull us into any form of safety like Ruby Sparks does. In fact, in this adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name, it is at times confusing as to who’s perspective we’re seeing from. For a large majority of the film, we are aligned with the Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) as she and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons) drive in the snow to meet his parents for the first time. We hear her voiceover, her thoughts, telling us that she’s “thinking of ending things” – but something odd happens when we hear this, Jake hears it too and any time he does, he changes the subject. The film is open to interpretation, I am reading it as follows: The Young Woman is a product of Jake’s fantasy, as scenes switch between Jake and the highschool Janitor (Guy Boyd), who is older, present day Jake, imagining this series of events as he goes about his day. In an interview with the BFI, Kaufman says he was trying to show “things that happen in an actual relationship… I wanted to talk about projection in relationships.” With this in mind, we can delve into his exploration of this.
ITOET’s fantasy shares similarities with Calvin’s in Ruby Sparks, in that we have a man who is failing, lonely and imagines a woman to fill the void in his life. However, Calvin’s takes place in the present and Jake’s is a product of reflection, which is why the Young Woman goes by many names (Lucy, Lucia, Louisa) why she has multiple professions and interests (physics, poetry, painting, biology, waitressing, gerontology), why she is so perplexed by what she is experiencing, a clashing of past and present, and memories that aren’t her own.
An example of this is the dinner scene with her, Jake, and his Mother (Toni Colette) and Father (David Thewlis). Prompted, she tells the story of how she and Jake met. She’s rambly and giddy, but stumbles on details as Jake sits there, stiffly. At the end of her scattered speech, she says, “That was six weeks ago. God, feels longer… feels like forever in a way… I can’t… I can’t even remember how long ago it is.” She falls into silence and we watch the panic on her face, knowing it doesn’t make sense. How they met is brought up several more times in the film, each time the story changing. Eventually the Young Woman says of Jake, to the Janitor, “It was so long ago, I barely remember. I mean… We never even talked, is the truth. I’m not even sure I registered him. There’s a lot of people. I was there with my girlfriend. We were celebrating our anniversary, stopped in for a drink, and then this guy kept looking at me. It was a nuisance. The occupational hazard of… of being a female.” From this we can assume that Jake, the Janitor, has been living through this fantasy in his head – the one that got away, the memorable face in the crowd, someone who could be what he couldn’t be.
In his discussion of Kaufman’s previous works, critic Colm O’Shea defines “the Kaufman protagonist” as “an introvert trapped by a sense of his own inexorable interiority. Instead of achieving “external” goals like love, knowledge or validation, he pursues externality itself. Put another way, he is engaged in a fevered escape attempt from the oppressive confines of his own head.” This is continued in ITOET, but with a reflective understanding of the implications of not achieving those “external” goals as Jake/the Janitor meets the end of his life. The Young Woman is literally stuck in Jake’s head, unlike Kaufman’s previous protagonists, there is no escape for her because this is the only reality she can know. The scene in Jake’s childhood bedroom reveals to us just how much he doesn’t know about her, because she is an ever changing amalgamation of his desires and memories.
Earlier in the film, she recites a poem she wrote called “Bonedog” – it makes Jake emotional, he says “It’s like you wrote it about me.” She resents this, saying that it’s what poets hope for, that there’s “some universality in the specific, I don’t know.” He repeats, “It’s like you wrote it about me.” She thinks to herself, again, “I’m thinking of ending things.” She is unwillingly existing in Jake’s head – a person with passions, dislikes and original thoughts who Jake has projected a fantasy on. This poem appears again, in a poetry anthology in his childhood bedroom, along with other representations of previous references in the film, including a book on physics, work by William Wordsworth (who Jake brings up in conversation with the Young Woman), an urn for Jimmy – his family border collie that we met earlier. The Young Woman is pushed into her confusion as she questions her experiences, her relationship with Jake and her own identity.
In the film’s close, Kaufman presents us with a performance piece: Jake giving an acceptance speech and final song on a set for the high school performance of Oklahoma! and a recreation of his childhood bedroom, in front of an endless audience, all wearing old person stage make-up. In the speech, he says that he “accepts it all” therefore accepting what his life is, or was. This scene is preceded by the Janitor having a heart attack in his truck, then following an animated pig into the highschool, telling him “You. Me. Ideas. We’re all one thing.” Now that we are with Jake/the Janitor’s perspective, we accept that this is not just a story about a relationship, it is about Jake facing his failure, his loss and accepting that no woman of his imagination would’ve changed the course of his life.
Discussing the character of the Young Woman in an interview with Eric Kohn for IndieWire, Kaufman says, “I needed her to have agency for it to work as a dramatic piece […] I really liked the idea that even within his fantasy, he cannot have what he wants. He’s going to imagine this thing, but then he’s going to also imagine how it won’t work, how she’s going to [get] bored with him, how she’s going to not think he’s smart enough or interesting enough.” It is within all this self doubt, all this failure, that the male protagonist finally learns his lesson: That real people and real relationships are challenging and that not even in your fantasy you are satisfied.
While Kaufman is no stranger to exploring the world of depressed men with relationship issues, as shown in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, 2015), and Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002), we understand that, with ITOET, Kaufman isn’t telling us to feel sorry for this man’s romantic failures. But, from an arguably mature male perspective, that men must learn that failures cannot be fixed by the woman of your dreams, that she doesn’t exist and that projecting a fantasy does not make it true. On the other hand, with Ruby Sparks, Kazan’s understanding of rom-com tropes and film fantasy allow her to cut men down to size, play with the feminine understanding of the male perspective and present on screen the exact problem with the manic pixie dream girl trope and romanticisation of manipulative relationships. In the end, both Kaufman and Kazan are saying the same thing: A relationship doesn’t work if half of it’s in your head.
by Gemma Mushington
Gemma Mushington (@gemma_ym) is a London screenwriter, blogger and journal keeper. You can catch her ramblings around the internet and, one day, her more refined ramblings on the screen. She is an appreciator of comfy socks, scented candles and clever card tricks.