Skip to main content

Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real.


Ruby Sparks
(2012)

The problem with Zoe Kazan’s script for Ruby Sparks isn’t a lack of laughs, or that it stretches its premise beyond breaking point. It’s that this little subgenre of “writer creates fantasy world/character and then learns it ain’t so marvellous” is overly familiar. There is so little that is new left to draw from this murky pond, at least on the evidence here. In addition, while Kazan’s moral concerning the unrealistic illusions that (men) project onto their relationships is a sturdy one, she doesn’t so much gently hammer home the message as inflict blunt force trauma on the viewer to get it across.

One could imagine more subtlety and nuance from, say, Woody Allen. After all, he gave us The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which fictional characters emerge from a movie and start interacting within the “real” world. Then there’s Marc Foster’s Stranger than Fiction, which has a not dissimilar tone to Ruby Sparks but inverts the protagonists. In Ruby Sparks it is the creator, not the creation, whom the plot revolves around. The mechanism is more overtly a metaphor here too. None of the meta-commentary of a Last Action Hero.

Paul Dano’s novelist, Calvin, who wrote a bestseller 10 years ago but has yet to publish a sophomore effort, finds his writer’s block is er… unblocked when he starts dreaming of the titular character. He soon discovers that she is not just fuelling his burst in creativity, however. She becomes tangible. And everything he types on the page, she does. You can see where this is going right there, yes? It’s also one of those set-ups where the viewer is conscious, at every turn, of possible tangents that could be explored - would be explored – if such a conceit were actualised. But, in order to keep a rein on a premise that could become uncontrollable, much of this is left dangling.

Indeed, the rigid focus on the feckless Calvin and his tunnel vision idea of love has a number of unfortunate side effects. One is that, in story terms, there are a number of longueurs where it becomes clear we are treading water. The only distractions from this are some colourful supporting characters, most particularly Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s mother and her boyfriend. There’s also Steve Coogan as a sleazy (now there’s a surprise!) agent and the always-welcome Elliot Gould as Calvin’s shrink. Chris Messina (seen in the very ropey fourth season of Damages) has a lot of fun as Calvin’s brother and confidante.

The other problem is Dano himself. The actor wanders from scene to scene as if he is suffering from a terminal bladder complaint, with the result that it’s difficult to invest in his character or situation. This isn’t a new thing, it’s just the Dano persona. Kazan is his real world (well, Hollywood, anyway) other half, and she makes Ruby a decidedly Zooey Deschanel-esque kook (Manic Pixie Dream Girl is, I understand, the “type”).

On the evidence of this, Kazan has a promising career as a writer but she needs to resist the urge to over-egg the pudding. The Ruby freak-out scene, where Calvin types instruction after instruction that she enacts accordingly, is an actor’s dream and it is dramatically strong stuff but it represents an easy and inevitable place for the characters to end up. Nothing in Ruby Sparks really surprises, which is the disappointment. A scene at a party featuring Deborah Ann Woll (Jessica in True Blood) as Calvin’s ex merely serves to underscore what has already been established in bold type and enormous font-size (it’s very nice to see Woll, though).

And, while her dialogue is frequently very witty, it occasionally reveals itself as cringingly self-conscious (to wit, “Maybe we knew each other in another life, or maybe we just go to the same coffee shop”).

Whether the ending represents Calvin having grown sufficiently not to make the same mistake twice, or about to do exactly that, is open to debate and no doubt intentionally so. Its interpretation appears to have provoked a fair amount of debate, but it elicited a response of caution from me. Even if the “reality” has changed, the image of Calvin’s fantasy remains the same.

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris return to the director’s chair(s) for the first time since Little Miss Sunshine. Rather than creating a bold visual style (although the static camerawork is a signature choice in itself), the tools they employ most effectively are in editing and soundtrack. Such an approach was evident in their superior debut but, while it informs and emphasises the scenario and performances, it does rather scream “quirky little indie”.

***1/2 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…