Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ruby Sparks
Words Become Her At A Writer's Beck And Type

Zoe Kazan in the title role of "Ruby Sparks", the romantic comedy-drama she also wrote.  The film is directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. 
Fox Searchlight Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, July 26, 2012

Writing isn't easy to convey cinematically.  Writing is often dry and inelastic on the big screen.  In the recent past one film about writing leaps to my mind as an entertaining experience: Spike Jonze's "Adaptation." -- a great film on writing that makes writing a living, breathing thing.  Written by Charlie Kauffman and Donald Kauffman and based on Susan Orlean's best-seller The Orchid Thief, "Adaptation." was funny, playful and smart. 

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' new romantic comedy-drama "Ruby Sparks", which opened yesterday across the U.S. and Canada, parlays some Kauffman feel, but on its own terms works for about 40 minutes as an interesting though cliché-ridden romantic comedy-drama about lonely, celebrated writer Calvin (Paul Dano), whose latest literary work-in-progress, one Ruby Sparks ("Sparks" writer Zoe Kazan) becomes vividly real to its creator.  Calvin's brother Harry (Chris Messina, "Julie And Julia") doesn't believe Calvin's creation is real.  Calvin's psychiatrist (Elliott Gould, in a funny, understated performance) encourages his patient to explore.

In Los Angeles Calvin, a John Lennon-lookalike, types in a shadowy room on a vintage typewriter.  His imagination is illuminated by a sunny, dreamy vision.  It mesmerizes him, supplying words for his blank page.  Ruby Sparks is Calvin's muse.  He's led to her.  She comes to him.  It's love.  It's real.  They are in love.  And then the movie seems to end.  The juice and exhilaration of the initial beauty, poetry and absorption evaporate into needless comedic caricature, with Calvin's mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas), the kind of shtick more appropriate in the infinitely better Dayton-Faris debut effort "Little Miss Sunshine".  The film spends the rest of its time feverishly distracting itself.

Mr. Dano (also in "Little Miss Sunshine") works hard to bring Calvin's heartbeat to functional, though I never felt Calvin had a soul.  Calvin is his typewriter, a static, fearful figure mired in existential angst.  Mr. Dano's character has a neurotic Woody Allen in him, only without the familiar Allenesque banter.  Ms. Kazan keeps things simple in her performance, and this vigorous and alternately dour film dances around her.  She's the one bit of genuine energy and life the film has.

"Ruby Sparks", which offers occasional laughs, as a film looks and feels distinctly uncomfortable with itself.  Halfway through are flashes of graphic horror and I wondered why.  Near the end the film attempts a different kind of horror, making crescendo and melodrama out of scarcely anything at all.  Ms. Kazan, an actress in such films as "Revolutionary Road", writes a script with one or two good ideas but I don't think they are translated well via the direction of husband and wife team Dayton and Faris.  The direction is the biggest problem with "Ruby Sparks", as is its uneven tone, and its angelic title character is pile-driven into the ground in a series of foolish, cringe-worthy climaxes that punish the audience for no appreciable good reason.  The directors mean well but their predictable film, overlong and devoid of any subtlety and ingenuity, does not.

The anti-social, self-loathing Calvin is a Luddite and misogynist, whom, like the character Jay of the current film "Trishna" wants to control the one woman in his life and keep her under lock and key.  Calvin never truly enjoys Ruby, only the idea of her and the male chauvinist desire to operate Ruby like a wind-up toy or robot.  I don't think the filmmakers are sexist in the portrayals but Ms. Kazan's story fuels such a response, since Ruby lacks her own voice and independence, aside from a few minutes in the film's second half.  Ruby is the damaging stereotype of single, needy, obsessive woman via the projection of male fantasy: talk French, talk Spanish.  Clean.  Strip.  Sing.  Fall.  Jump.  Ooh la la!  None of these moments is funny, and Dayton & Faris don't make them out to be.  Yet the film's climaxes are also not nightmarish in the way they should be, coming off as exploitive regardless of the filmmakers' intentions. 

One could say "Ruby Sparks", a film about possession and perception, occurs purely in Calvin's mind.  Some of it does, but the origin of anguish in Calvin isn't appreciably drawn to generate much substance or audience concern for his plight.  Yes, Calvin is a agonized sheltered writer who questions himself, but don't we all question ourselves sometimes?  There's little background, underpinning or shape to Calvin, so he becomes as much a caricature and wicked fantasy as Ruby, and for that matter, everyone else in the film does. 

Ruby may literally leap off Calvin's page but the film itself does not.  You feel the directors trying to shake things up and inject life into "Ruby Sparks" but its final choking and cloying minutes feel like smog and exhaust fumes in the City Of Angels.  There's a lack of discipline in the film's conclusion.  "Ruby Sparks" could have ended earlier than it does and at least left something to the imagination.

Had the directors stayed focus on the gloomy, edgy story of Calvin and his journey into darkness without resorting to a sitcom-y type-filled middle, "Ruby Sparks" wouldn't have had to overcompensate with its forced, orchestrated and overstacked ending.  The film would have been an even, precise effort.  The following is admittedly an unfair comparison to make: the works of William S. Burroughs ("Naked Lunch") and Hunter S. Thompson ("Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas") are one thing on the big screen.  The pretentious "Ruby Sparks", a near-disaster, is unfortunately quite another.

Also with: Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Aasif Mandvi, Deborah Ann Woll.

"Ruby Sparks" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use.  The film's running time is one hour and 44 minutes. 

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