Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ruby Sparks

Hearts and Minds
"The Situation is Crazy.  I Am Not."

Stephen King will see this one and slap his forehead for an opportunity missed for a seven hundred page novel.  I've known enough authors of fiction that have mentioned a scary thing: they'll start writing, fleshing out the skeleton of an idea, the characters take shape, become three-dimensional, and then suddenly, they live. In fact (and fiction), they become so alive they'll start doing things and going in directions that the author never intended or had even planned for. The figments of the author's imagination take on a life of their own, rebel and...rather than the author changing them, they change the author, or at least his intentions for them.

Eerie.  And the basis for Ruby Sparks, the latest film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the folks who directed Little Miss Sunshine.  That film I wasn't too crazy about, as it seemed to scream "Indie Sensibilities" from every tortured writerly "quirk" that was tossed in.  Ruby Sparks, however, is different—a nicely buttoned-up movie that reverberates with all sorts of echoes that ripple through the film and cross over in a concentric series of folded back references, self- and otherwise. 

Author Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling with a follow-up novel after an initial success—struggling for 10 years, in fact.  His shrink (Elliott Gould) gives him an assignment to take the pressure off, and Calvin is inspired, writing about an idealized, neurotic woman named Ruby Sparks.  But, he's not just inspired, he's energized, so much so he can't wait to get back to his typewriter (it's this old piece of technology before a PC, or what was known in the Pleistocene era as a "word processor") to continue the work, spend more time with her, creating her.  So much so that he starts to fear that he's falling in love with her.  His brother reads the pages and his criticism is harsh: "You haven't written a person.  You've written a girl.  Geeky, messy girls are not what people want."  He remains undeterred, writing all night and into the morning.  Imagine his horror when he wakes up from his QWERTY keyboard, runs downstairs and finds Ruby (Zoe Kazan) in one of his shirts, eating cereal.

He freaks, naturally, much to her consternation, and then is shocked to discover that everybody can see her, too.  She's just not a figment of his imagination; his imagination walks amongst us.

This is the stuff of male fantasy rom-com's.  But, Ruby Sparks takes it into some dark places, ala Hitchcock, in the realms of identity, manipulation, male wish-fulfillments, and the odd idealization and expectations that love creates and blinds us to.  We all create an object of affection (on both sides, sending and receiving), but whether that object has anything to do with reality depends on both parties and how much they want to compromise to achieve that...whatever it is..."more perfect union," let's say.

The script (by Kazan herself) explores some uncomfortable territory in that regard and Kazan has a knack for writing dialogue that is spot-on, but containing deep echoes that weight them further.  It's one of the better rom-com/fantasy scripts to come along in awhile—at least it has a thought in its head—and the performers, while still showing an abundance of the too-eager "cutes," its not enough to keep you wondering how it all could end.  Yes, the film has its moments of coy cloyness—for example, when Ruby goes to a family dinner with Calvin's hippy-dippy step-parents (Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas), that amounts to a side-bar, and just lets us know what we already know, that Calvin is a bit of stick-in-the-mud and a buzz-kill, and (surprise, surprise) less capable of change than his own creation, which, if he wanted to, he could correct with a new sentence, or some Liquid Paper.

It doesn't go there (and only for revelation purposes, any more and it might be a good vehicle for Adam Sandler), nor does it end "Happily Ever After" as rom-com's do (but only because they choose to).  Ruby Sparks chooses another way, fully committed to not committing and finding the fine balance of compromise.

Ruby Sparks is a Matinee

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