31 July 2012

Dayton & Faris’ ‘Ruby Sparks’

Eating cute: Dano and Kazan as Pygmalion and Galatea.

A nifty little comedy about imagination and reality, Ruby Sparks tells of a young writer (Paul Dano) who creates the ideal girlfriend (Zoe Kazan), only to see her materialize before him as a real woman. The screenplay was written by Kazan, who thus created the character that’s played by her real-life boyfriend, Dano. “Criss-cross,” as Bruno Antony might say. What’s remarkable is how much the movie manages to convey about the writer’s life and the ways in which our idea of a lover may be stronger than the real identity of that person.

Husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (whose Little Miss Sunshine provided Dano with an important early break) opt for nothing short of a manual typewriter for Calvin. It’s retro, and therefore kooky (his home phone has a cord, too), as you’d expect in an hipster indie comedy. But the typewriter is also a telling representation of the writing process: blank paper, cranking platen, staccato rhythms, jammed keys.

Also, as Dano pointed out during his surprise appearance after the screening I attended, with a manual typewriter there’s no option, as there is with a computer, of discreetly switching over to surf the Internet when you’re supposed to be writing. So when Calvin gets writer’s block, it’s externalized in an easily comprehensible way — presumably so even for non-writers.

Presumably, too, non-writers project their own fantasies onto their romantic partners. I’m guilty of this all the time, but then I’m a writer, projecting onto characters and partners alike. I console myself with the reminder that Dorothy L. Sayers and Margaret Mitchell did the same thing, without which we’d never have Lord Peter Wimsey or Rhett Butler. Still, this puts a certain strain on our real-life partners (and some of our characters), and in this movie, as Ruby Sparks becomes both imaginary and real, the initial, very broad comedy (in which Calvin thinks he’s hallucinating) builds impressively and gains in emotional power.

Advice for young actresses: If you want a great line like
“Kiss me, stupid,”
you may have to write it yourself.

If Kazan the screenwriter left any angle unexplored, I didn’t notice. Both Calvin and Ruby are winning characters given spectacular life by the actors. They’re excellent company, and only after leaving the theater do you quite realize just how small-scale the movie is: it’s almost exclusively focused on their relationship, and the rest of the cast stands far at the margins of the frame.

That said, we get two pleasing cameos (from The Daily Show’s Asif Mandvi as Calvin’s agent and from Steve Coogan as Calvin’s rival author), one brief but memorable scene from Deborah Ann Woll (as Calvin’s ex-girlfriend), and pitch-perfect, scene-stealing turns from Annette Bening as Calvin’s mother and Elliott Gould as his therapist.*

Best of all is Chris Messina, as Calvin’s brother, the nearest to a third principal character this movie has to offer. Dano observed during his post-screening remarks that, of all the actors who auditioned for the role, Messina looks least like him — but he’s a marvel of compassion and comedy. The brother/best friend/sidekick actors in other romantic comedies need more actors like him.

“Remember how dad said I had an overactive imagination?”

Kazan intended the screenplay as an updating of the Galatea myth, and says she hadn’t even heard of the term “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” (a staple of popular criticism) before the movie came out. Yet it’s clear that, as a young actress with more brains and louche charm than conventional Maxim appeal, Kazan probably gets stuck with more than her fair share of scripts for Manic Pixie Dreamgirl roles, and she’s fed up with them. While Ruby starts off as just the sort of idealized kook we’ve seen in countless romantic comedies, she’s continually evolving — that is, becoming real — in ways that the writer Calvin doesn’t anticipate. You can almost hear Kazan exclaim, “Take that, lazy screenwriters! Women’s roles are more complex than you assume!”

Like that other recent, admired romantic comedy, (500) Days of Summer, Ruby Sparks portrays Los Angeles as a playground–paradise for lovers. But if you have the misfortune of finding yourself in a screening room next to The Dark Knight Rises, as I did, then you will be forgiven for thinking that you’re witnessing Los Angeles in the middle of an earthquake. The shudders and booms from next-door nearly overpowered the soundtrack of Ruby Sparks at times, and that’s a shame. Nick Urata’s wistful, romantic score lends the picture much of its emotional resonance, and there are other terrific songs along the way, including some vintage French pop numbers I quite enjoyed.

Somewhat alarmingly, Ruby Sparks already has evacuated its spot next to Dark Knight on the Upper West side, dropping from a mere two screens in New York to just one, less than a week after the movie opened to sterling reviews. So don’t hesitate to snap it up, if it comes your way.

*NOTE: Dano told us that Calvin’s mother’s house, ostensibly and quite plausibly in Big Sur, is actually in the Los Angeles area and belongs to the Pufnstuf puppeteer Sid Krofft, who pretty much built it with his own two hands.


Michael Leddy said...

The premise resembles that of Philip Larkin’s novel Jill, though I’m guessing that the resemblance can’t be anything more than a coincidence.

I like that your review mentions both Bruno Antony and Dorothy Sayers. That’s enough to make me trust the reviewer’s taste. :)

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Michael. I hope I do not sink in your esteem when I say that I've never read any Philip Larkin -- but at least I'm honest about it!

Anonymous said...

Philip Larkin? He was only the greatest poet in English in the latter half of the last century. As for his novels, I'd recommend both Jill and A Girl In Winter.

Ah, Gary Indiana ...

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Ah, I do believe I've read some of Larkin's poetry. By the way, Rick, on your recommendation I picked up a few of Gary Indiana's novels at a used bookstore not long ago. I confess that none thus far has compelled me to read beyond a page or two — it's very, very difficult for me to read contemporary fiction, because my professional jealousy is monstrous, and it doesn't help that he's met with some success while tackling subjects of interest to me and to my own (unsuccessful) work. But at least I've got the books close to hand now, whenever I'm ready.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you can get ahold of Scar Tissue, you will find that the stories read quickly and don't demand much of a commitment of time and attention. That collection also contains some of his best work (as does White Trash Boulevard, which is hard to find -- though the rare books and manuscripts room at the 42nd St. NYPL has a copy).

-- Rick

Anonymous said...

And might I remind you that the Gary Indiana novels I think you are referring to (not the true crime but the gay slice-of-life ones) are very much of a time and place? I can't believe he's said all there is to say on the subject.

-- Rick