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

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

A drunken, sodden, pill-popping cat lady.

The Woman in the Window (2021) (SPOILERS) Disney clearly felt The Woman in the Window was so dumpster-bound that they let Netflix snatch it up… where it doesn’t scrub up too badly compared to their standard fare. It seems Tony Gilroy – who must really be making himself unpopular in the filmmaking fraternity, as producers’ favourite fix-it guy - was brought in to write reshoots after Joe Wright’s initial cut went down like a bag of cold, or confused, sick in test screenings. It’s questionable how much he changed, unless Tracy Letts’ adaptation of AJ Finn’s 2018 novel diverged significantly from the source material. Because, as these things go, the final movie sticks fairly closely to the novel’s plot.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

To our glorious defeat.

The Mouse that Roared (1959) (SPOILERS) I’d quite forgotten Peter Sellers essayed multiple roles in a movie satirising the nuclear option prior to Dr. Strangelove . Possibly because, while its premise is memorable, The Mouse that Roared isn’t, very. I was never that impressed, much preferring the sequel that landed (or took off) four years later – sans Sellers – and this revisit confirms that take. The movie appears to pride itself on faux- Passport to Pimlico Ealing eccentricity, but forgets to bring the requisite laughs with that, or the indelible characters. It isn’t objectionable, just faintly dull.