Premium Rush

Have I got the ticket for you!

It’s been a good year for biking.  Cyclist Rachel Vaziralli (an acquaintance) holds the current throne on the internet’s search for the next American fitness star, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon find themselves in a movie that glorifies cycling.  We never see Shannon on a bike, but considering his role in this film, no foul.

The story of Premium Rush resembles the type of narrative presented in Vantage Point or the TV series LOST: we begin by focusing on one character who seems to be the game’s main player, but we are then thrust back and forth in time in order to experience the story according to other characters who may have seemed, at the outset, less than vital.  The film uses this structure to tell a relatively formulaic MacGuffin story revolving around a mysterious envelope holding an object only ever referred to as “the ticket.”  Everyone wants the ticket; that is, everyone except the one carrying it in his pack – Wilee (Gordon-Levitt), a bicycle messenger who has very much the same take on bikes that I do on cars: an old one is trustier despite the cost of the inevitable repairs.  Unlike a car, however, Wilee’s bike has no brakes; he claims that bicycle brakes contributed to the greatest injury he ever received (we’re spared, however, from this scene).  Wilee has been dispatched to deliver the ticket for Nima (Jamie Chung), who happens to be the roommate of his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).  Relationships between the three are rocky.  Nima wants Vanessa to move out on short notice; we don’t know why.  Vanessa is considering breaking up with Wilee; we don’t know why.  Wilee suspects that the package contains “drug stuff” and doesn’t trust Nima.  He’s delivering the package as usual when he is accosted by Bobby Monday (Shannon), a dirty cop with a gambling problem and a name from 1990.  Monday almost gets Wilee to fork over the package, but his temper gets the best of him and Wilee decides to continue with the delivery.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse game around Manhattan, and the outcome depends fully upon allegiances.  The aid of Mr. Leung (Henry O), a Chinese money launderer with a team of enforcers, could tip the scale in anyone’s direction, but he and his right hand man (Kin Shing Wong), a completely silent (and classically inscrutable) man who does nothing but play Sudoku, remain relatively impartial in spite of the money owed to him by Monday.  The cops, aggravated by the consistently reckless bikers and unaware of Monday’s dastardly nature, remain an obstacle from beginning to end.  Fellow bike messenger Manny (Wolé Parks) should be on Wilee’s side, but antagonizes him due to non-reciprocated feelings for Vanessa.  We know the key to the ticket reaching its destination for its intended reason (which ends up being a little deeper than we may need to go in a film so light) is to achieve full cooperation between Wilee, Vanessa, and Nima, but to get there, the three of them need to come to an understanding while two-thirds of the equation is speeding through New York City traffic at speeds I’d rather not even consider.

Even better than the film’s structure is its tendency to map out Wilee’s decision-making process when he’s in danger: years of biking through Manhattan have seemingly given him a sort of sixth sense about where taxi cabs, pedestrians, UPS trucks, and any number of other hazards will be in relation to him when he reaches a bustling intersection.  These parts of the film are quick and happen often enough that they seem unique to the film but not often enough to bore or overwhelm an audience; filmmakers too often fall into the Trap of the Clever Trick, mistaking novelty for genius.

Michael Shannon makes an interesting switch to a villainous maniac after giving 2011’s best male performance in Take Shelter, but it’s a good warmup if you’re following Shannon’s work this year, because he’ll soon be appearing in The Iceman as infamous contract killer Richard Kuklinski and as the villain in the newest iteration of the Superman franchise.  Gordon-Levitt is having an eventful year as well, appearing in four films (including Spielberg’s Lincoln, which, if the Academy is as predictable as ever, will be in the running for Best Picture – sad that we know that before the film is even made).  Ramirez makes an effective heroine, and though the film’s characters only allow us to know them on the surface, she does a fantastic job of ensuring us that she’s acting on what she thinks is right, not out of obligation.  Also appearing in the film are Aasif Mandvi (in one of his better performances) as Wilee and Vanessa’s dispatcher, and Lauren Ashley Carter in a mostly-background role as the dispatcher’s assistant, Phoebe.  Despite her scarce screen time and involvement, she stands out.  Anthony Chisholm appears as Tito, a veteran messenger described as being “like ninety-eight years old,” and who brings back fond memories of Peter Boyle as the grizzled old “Wizard” in Taxi Driver.

With its speedy, decently-written dialogue, the film gives its actors a chance to deepen the characters through conversation, (somewhat) filling the hole opened by lack of background information.  Oddly, though, the hole doesn’t take away from the enjoyment or really distract much at all, as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that none of the characters are going to surprise you by the end.

Ultimately, Premium Rush is a good summer post-blockbuster whose existence is justified by the fact that, unlike ninety percent of the blockbusters I see, the screenwriters seem like they’ve actually written a screenplay before (don’t take that as too high a compliment, but it is a compliment).  The most difficult part of this film?  Trying to maintain the speed limit while driving home afterward.

Premium Rush (2012); written and directed by David Koepp; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, and Lauren Ashley Carter.

Ruby Sparks

It’s love!  It’s magic!

As a writer, I hate movies about writing.  The writing process is always watered down and simplified to remind the viewer of creative processes with which they might be more familiar, such as visual art, acting, or music – this is not to say that these other art forms don’t have their own special challenges, methods, and struggles, but writing is endlessly interior, fiercely personal, and heavily misunderstood by those who don’t write, which makes it impossible to depict onscreen.  Additionally, writers are often portrayed as grubby, anti-social Arthur Miller lookalikes who live alone, have bizarre, often estranged parents, and who pass out over their typewriters when they have writer’s block.  Hell, even Miller was portrayed as somewhat of a parody of himself in last year’s My Week With Marilyn.  Why does this keep happening?  Because the people creating these stories about writers are partaking in an entirely different creative venue – film-making – a collaborative effort with a process infinitely disparate from that of writing prose or poetry.

On top of the technical inaccuracies, a filmmaker’s portrayal of the writing life is often laughable to writers, even successful ones; the ingenuity of it all is that the layman (i.e. 95% of moviegoers) doesn’t know the difference.  That said, take Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), the protagonist of Ruby Sparks, a fantasy/romance/dramedy, the brainchild of Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay and also co-stars as Ruby.  Calvin is in his mid-twenties, has one novel published, and is already a successful, famous, moneymaking author with his own house and swimming pool, and whose book is apparently taught in most high schools.  He is frequently referred to as a “genius” by his peers, and his favored book houses stand by to excitedly publish whatever he may come out with next.  Lavish parties are held in his honor.

Preposterous?  Yes.  But it’s not all sunshine and unicorns for Calvin.  Still bothered by the death of his father and the subsequent exeunt of his girlfriend of five years, Calvin sees a therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould!), who attempts to help by giving Calvin “writing assignments” to both alleviate his writer’s block and to help with deal with his issues.  “Can it be bad?” Calvin asks.  Rosenthal answers, “I would love it to be bad.”  This gave me the sense that Kazan was channeling one of her workshop leaders and not a therapist, but it’s an effective trigger for what happens next in the story.

Feeling a new freedom by being allowed to write “bad” prose (really?  He’s a published author and has never heard that good writing doesn’t come out right the first time?), Calvin begins writing a character study about a fictional girl named Ruby Sparks.  She is his fantasy woman, troubled but down-to-earth, who looks perfect in any style of clothing and who loves all the crap that male nerds are supposed to like (most notably zombie movies).  One morning, Calvin awakens to find Ruby herself in his kitchen eating Crispix and fixing him breakfast.  Thinking he must be hallucinating, Calvin phones Dr. Rosenthal, who doesn’t answer, and then Harry (Chris Messina), his caring older brother who shows genuine concern for Calvin but who is also stern and honest – “Women whose problems make them endearing aren’t real,” he says after reading a first draft of the Ruby story.  Harry comes over to investigate, at first accusing Calvin of hiring an actress to play one of his characters, but finally accepting the truth when Calvin types something about Ruby that instantly comes true.  Ruby, however, not only doesn’t seem to notice that she’s a fictional character under a writer’s control, but thinks she’s been in a relationship with Calvin for six months.  Calvin rolls with it.

The potential here is astronomical.  A fictional character that represents the writer’s ideals comes to life: a perfect metaphor for the writing process and what writing fiction does to a writer, how real characters become, how their lives become part of yours.  Soon, though, the relationship (as it must) begins to resemble a real relationship, which irks Calvin a bit.  Ruby doesn’t always agree with him.  Sometimes she’s too tired to have sex.  She wants to spend time with his family whereas he would rather pretend they don’t exist.  When Calvin finally breaks out the typewriter to tweak Ruby’s behavior (which yields catastrophic results), the film becomes less a metaphor and more a commentary on idealism and a cautionary tale about being controlling in a relationship.  At this point, the film’s structure becomes disappointingly formulaic: we know he will eventually tell her she’s fictional.  We know she’ll react badly.  We know he’ll write a book about it, which will be an incredible success.  We know he’ll run into Ruby again at the end and try to reignite the relationship in the wake of multiple epiphanies.  In this way, the story becomes predictable, all but abandons its metaphor and what appear to be its original intentions, and the final scene, while sweet, is actually a carbon copy of the final scene of Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The performances keep things together.  Paul Dano doesn’t get enough work in lead roles, and this one, if inserted into a more intellectually-sound movie, would be Oscar worthy.  Kazan is lustrous as Ruby, though I get the feeling she wrote a few scenes (namely one in which Calvin speed-writes to make her do a dozen different wacky things) to show off her own acting chops – not that I blame her for taking the opportunity.  Steve Coogan appears as yet another evil sleazeball, and a scene in which he attempts to seduce Ruby in a swimming pool is more mustache-twirly than anything Bane does in The Dark Knight Rises.  Antonio Banderas makes an appearance as Mort, Calvin’s stepdad, who carves furniture with a chainsaw and tries very hard to bond with the aloof Calvin (one of the film’s more inspired character relationships, despite the little time it’s given).  I was most excited to see Elliott Gould (my favorite private-eye actor) in another good role at a healthy 73 years old.

The writing life isn’t like this.  Even successful writers (that is to say, writers who have a consistent output and who are respected in the literary community; not hacks, sell-outs, and flashes-in-the-pan making a killing off of stale, derivative Y.A.) aren’t giving readings at packed theatres, likely not even writers like Jennifer Egan, who won the Pulitzer last year for A Visit From the Goon Squad.  Additionally (and this is a problem every movie about writing has), the small bits of Calvin’s writing we actually get to hear aren’t good.  Again, the layman doesn’t know the difference and probably isn’t even giving thought to the quality of the writing (hell, the average reader doesn’t even do that), but Kazan could have set aside the self-indulgence for a moment and hired a prose writer to pen the passage of Calvin’s writing we hear at the end.  Might I also add that I could not get past Calvin’s (Kazan’s) decision to name the dog after F. Scott Fizgerald, “one of the greatest novel writers ever.”  A writer of Calvin’s apparent depth would be more likely to name a pet after a character, not an author, though Ruby’s assessment of Calvin’s naming choice adds a certain charm to the whole thing.  If you want to see what weird, reclusive writers actually name their pets, look up the name of H.P. Lovecraft’s cat.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I really enjoyed this movie.  I loved the initial concept, most of the characters, and their inspired attempts to live with each other.  Its potential and risk-taking are miles above something like The Bourne Legacy, but I tend to be harsher when something with so much pretense of intellect and promise of big payoff falls slightly short of the goal (or, in any case, what I believe its goal should be), especially when it’s so close to home.

Ruby Sparks (2012); written by Zoe Kazan; directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.