Friday, August 10, 2012

Strike Twice

We're finally in August, and as most of this past summer has featured one major movie a week with very little in the way of alternative fare, it's nice to finally see more than a few options on the table. This August not only adds more titles I want to see than existed the entirety of the last few months, but some of the films I've been most anticipating this year. One of those films was the second film directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks. Their eventual follow-up to the surprisingly wonderful 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine, this was a tale with a talented cast, seemingly proven directors, and a fascinating story.

In the screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Calvin (Paul Dano), a once-successful novelist is suffering from a severe case of writer's block. Ten years after writing an extremely popular work of fiction, he is frustrating his agent and publisher with his inability to get anything down on paper. Regular visits to his therapist are little help, until Calvin  literally discovers the girl of his dreams. Inspired, Calvin creates the life of Ruby Sparks, a 26-year-old with a history of romantic follies and a bubbly personality of which he cannot get enough. Calvin falls in love with Ruby, even as he knows that he cannot practically fall in love with his own creation. Then the most amazing thing happens. After a night of writing, Calvin descends into his kitchen to discover Ruby Sparks, just as he has written her. And she is very much real.

Tell me you wouldn't want to wake up to this just once.
That magical element of Ruby Sparks is what makes the film so interesting, and certainly lays the groundwork for the moral dilemmas and questions of what makes you and I real that fill the script. Upon discovering that whatever he writes about Ruby comes true, Calvin at first makes the correct decision and decides not to write anymore, determining that he loves Ruby just the way she is (Ruby in turn doesn't know she's a fictional creation). But when the "honeymoon" portion of their relationship ends and Calvin finds some of Ruby's personality quirks irksome, he is tempted to write one sentence and "fix" things (as you can tell, it doesn't always work out the way he thinks). Burdened by the fallout of his previous failed relationships, Calvin doesn't want to risk losing the supposed love of his life. In Kazan's story, we get to see both sides to the issue, and how none of the decisions made are done so lightly.

Yes, they play brothers. No, I don't buy it either.
Of course, while these moments abound in the film, so too do many dry spells and dead spots thanks to uninteresting or unnecessary characters and a lack of solid ideas. This wouldn't be a problem if the film exhibited the same sort of natural charm that helped Little Miss Sunshine succeed, but the directors strangely struggle in replicating that effort here. That certainly didn't help, especially as every moment past the film's halfway mark makes Calvin less and less sympathetic a character, and unlike his Sunshine co-stars Steve Carrell or Abigail Breslin, Dano does not seem to have the ability to exude charisma on his own. Better is co-star Kazan, who is a ball of energy that can be redirected anywhere at a moment's notice. All of their co-stars, which includes Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould and Chris Messina, are good talents, but the script restricts just how much they contribute to the story as a whole.

That's a LOT of foliage...
If there's one word with which I could describe how the film made me feel, the most obvious that comes to mind is "uncomfortable". That's mostly in relation to the romance between Calvin and Ruby, and in a way it's the reason the film's story is as solid as it is. Romance in Hollywood tends to be uncomplicated, clean and without major issues. Romance in Ruby Sparks is complicated, messy and full of unseen dangers. In other words, the relationship between Calvin and Ruby is at times uncomfortable to watch because real relationships can in fact be uncomfortable, and being with your "soul mate" is never as easy as fiction would let you believe. Unfortunately, while Kazan manages to encapsulate the ups and downs of real-life romance, it doesn't make for a particularly lovely experience, unless you happen to thrive on conflict. The reason Hollywood romances starring Channing Tatum or Ryan Gosling are so beloved is that they're pipe dreams. Plenty of people already know how complicated real life can be. That's why Sparks is only playing at about a dozen theaters around the country.

As my compatriot used to call it, a "Hot Mess".
Still, I can't help but like Ruby Sparks, even if it didn't live up to my expectations. Kazan is a breakout star, and does a great job carrying the film, whether it was on the acting or writing sides. This movie is a complex mix of fantasy and reality that, while at times seeming a bit too much, really makes you change your perspective on what makes for a "successful" relationship. It's a quality release, and one I'd recommend seeing, though perhaps a film that would be better explored on the small screen.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

I saw this Tuesday night. I think I like it much more than you did. When it comes to romance on the big screen I seem to be drawn to complicated relationships (like "Casablanca" and "Roman Holiday") which never have the satisfied happy conclusion.

I really liked his "breakdown" scene with Ruby and the typewriter, where he comes to grips with the horror of what he'd done. I'd almost wished they didn't have the happy ending.

My only real beef (and it really isn't that much of a beef) is that at times the story reminded me of two different Twilight Zone episodes and the end kind of reminded me of the ending for the movie "Goodbye Charlie".