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

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli