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…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

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.