PAUL DANO AND ZOE KAZAN IN RUBY SPARKSBeing Paul Dano
One of the charms of this flimsy and impermanent but entertaining little rom-com is that it shows the manual typewriter has now become such an ancient and peculiar instrument it is deemed capable of weaving magical spells. Young Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has the misfortune to have been the author of a best-selling novel at the age of nineteen. The income has provided him, apparently, with a sparkling house in the Los Angeles hills, but now, ten years later, he remains a nerdy asocial guy with no lady in his life or ability to find one, and his only friend is his brother Harry (Chris Messina), who resembles him in no respect. He's still a writing celebrity with women admirers, but he has no particular life and what's more, suffers from a monumental case of writer's block. (All this is lightly sketched in.) But one day he taps out a description of his ideal girlfriend on his Olympia portable -- his keyboard Aladdin's lamp -- and momentarily she appears. This movie plays out with speed and good rhythm and I loved it. But it doesn't leave a terribly deep impression. It resembles the creations of Charlie Kaufman, but those are more conceptually intriguing. Ruby Sparks
charms with the spirit of young love and offers light satire of men's desire to mold and use their lady friends.
This theme is as ancient as the Greek legend of Pygmalion and Galatea that gave us the Shaw play and the musical. The young lady of Calvin's typewritten fantasy creation seems flesh and blood. To his surprise, she seems real also to Harry and other people, including their mother and her boyfriend (a largely wasted Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas, overshadowed by a busy and distracting California coast hippie pad). Things are wonderful for a while. Zoe Kazan, the writer of this screenplay for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directors of Little Miss Sunshine
(in which Dano also appeared, six years ago), happens to be Dano's significant other in what we call "real life." She isn't any more prepossessing than Dano himself, who has little going for him appearance-wise, besides being tall and slim and having a nice shock of colorless hair. Zoe is button-eyed, oval-faced, and the type known as perky, but not much more.
This mutual lack of physical beauty doesn't matter much, I would argue, though it may keep the mass audience at bay. After all let's keep in mind that Ruby is Calvin's
fantasy of perfection: she doesn't necessarily have to be yours or mine.
This story also weaves in the equally ancient theme found in the 1001 Nights
and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Bedazzled
, the one illustrating the saying, Be careful what you wish for.
When Ruby gets more independent and starts spending nights out with friends and in her old apartment, Calvin sits down and types out that Ruby misses him and wants to be with him. But when she comes back she swerves in the opposite direction, becoming distressingly clingy. And so it goes back and forth between one extreme and another, as he sits down at the Olympia to make emergency tweaks that each time go a little too far in various directions, missing the perfection he seeks, until finally things become desperate and he just gives up. He still loves her. He just can't seem to stand to be with her any more. Game over. But not quite movie over, and Ms. Kazan has some trouble bringing things to a satisfactory conclusion. Like a lot of high concepts, this one becomes a little hard to get out of.
That family visit feels like a misstep, a blot on the concept. The bright, white, Ikea-esque house, Dano's own springy blandness and his new mate's lack of blinding beauty seem quite appropriate ways of getting across the theme economically and entertainingly. Therefore the trip he takes up along the California coast to Big Sur to introduce Ruby to his mother comes across as too busy and distracting. It steals a needless chapter from Bruce Beresford's far less successful Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding
in which Jane Fonda is the quirky old Sixties peace-and-love era dame. Besides in that movie all the emphasis was on the milieu, and here it's irrelevant. And is it just me, or was the California location of the story left too vague till the couple go up the coast?
On the other hand Dano, who usually is so glum and moon-faced, seems buoyant and happy playing off Zoe, is fun to watch for once, plainly having a ball. In one scene he picks her up and carries her off, and since he doesn't seem much of a muscle man (in a gym scene he eschews working out his arms alongside Harry) they both seem light as a feather. And being a real couple, they fit, like the far more attractive and glittering couple of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in the new Amazing Spider-Man.
But the latter two, a very handsome pair indeed, aren't conceptual; they're just comic book characters, which is something more pop.
The story of Rudy Sparks
is light as a feather too, and doesn't really have anywhere to go. But when you think bout it, though, this hoary theme, as developed here, becomes one of the most charming recent treatments of the "meet cute."
The (living) ghost of Charlie Kaufman undoubtedly hovers over Ruby Sparks.
Zoe Kazan's writing must owe something to Charlie. But the author of Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation,
and other mind-benders would never settle for something quite as simple as this. The appeal here is just that simplicity, even if the cleverness rating is way lower.Ruby Sparks'
(limited) US release day is July 25, 2012; in France it's Oct. 3 and in the UK Oct. 12.