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.

The Lie

It’s a soul-crusher

I once gave a lecture on T.C. Boyle’s selected work, noticing various patterns in sentence structures and descriptions – namely that Boyle employs techniques intended to dazzle or surprise the reader.  One of his newest short stories, “The Lie,” goes against the grain and harkens back to stories such as “Without A Hero,” in which an unsympathetic (if not altogether loathsome) male protagonist wallows in his failures and allows them to color everything in his life, most notably his personal relationships; these stories, when compared to spectacles such as “The Human Fly” (in which a Hungarian daredevil straps himself to the wing of an airplane) or “Big Game” (wherein an anthropomorphic elephant battles yuppies in an African game ranch located in Bakersfield, California), seem almost underwritten, and their character/dialogue-centric narratives lend themselves well to something we can’t seem to get enough of – movies based on books.  Director Joshua Leonard seems to agree, having adapted “The Lie” into a recent feature film, an official selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Setting aside my feelings about literature being watered down to passive media, I am expressly skeptical about films adapted from short stories.  How do you remain “faithful” to a text that can be read multiple times in a half hour while converting it into a ninety-minute visual experience?  My favorite example is 1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the better James Bond films, adapted from an Ian Fleming story in which Bond decides against executing a spy because he develops a soft spot for her.  The film version covers these events in about fifteen minutes, then launches into an action film: three major villains emerge, there’s a KGB conspiracy, and Bond cultivates a romance with the woman (played by Maryam d’Abo).  When my mother called and told me, “The program guide says there’s a new movie based on a T.C. Boyle story,” the very thought prompted a familiar tang of the heartbreak Timothy Dalton induced in me all those years ago.

Boyle’s story is narrated by Lonnie, a married twenty-six year-old father with a dead-end video editing job.  One day, he wakes up and decides, after watching his wife, Clover, a law student, complete her morning routine in an old Cramps t-shirt for the thousandth day in a row, that he will take the day off.  Radko, Lonnie’s tyrannical Slavic boss, knows what’s coming.  “Let me guess?  You’re sick?”  Having a bad reputation for taking time off and no sick days left, Lonnie claims that his baby has a terrible fever and that the family is at the hospital.  After enjoying the day, which most notably includes a homemade dinner and quality time with Clover, Lonnie repeats this process the following morning, except this time he panics and says the baby has died.  Clover, thinking of changing her name, in part because she isn’t “who she used to be” and partly to push Lonnie to the edge, knows nothing about the lie.  Lonnie accomplishes shockingly little during his days off, but when he returns to work, his coworkers have put together some money for his family.  Once Clover discovers his deception and the money, she confronts Lonnie, who decides to walk out the door rather than explain himself.

Joshua Leonard’s film version stars himself as Lonnie, along with Jess Weixler (of Teeth fame) as Clover, who has a much larger and more sympathetic role to play in the film.  Where Boyle’s Clover appears as a sort of mannequin with no described features and an inexplicable habit of instigating fights, Weixler’s Clover is on her husband’s side, loves him, and is understandably stressed about juggling work, school, and motherhood.  The couple is portrayed as nature-friendly, laid back, and a bit hippie-ish, whereas the text only hints at their pasts (Lonnie was once in a band and loved to snowboard, and Clover’s parents were hippies).  Here, their personalities are on the table, we can see the view from both sides, and Lonnie’s lie is fueled by far more than laziness – his extra time with Clover is an opportunity to, as he says, “press the reset button.”

Even in the film’s early scenes, it’s evident that the filmmakers have closely read the source material.  Even Clover’s punk-rock t-shirt is preserved (although in the film it’s changed to Crass, another punk diamond from the 70s; Cramps tees are likely in short supply).  Ancillary characters and background details are occasionally shifted and used to further the story in interesting ways.  Tank, a loser friend mentioned in the story, has a larger role in the film.  He’s still in a band with Lonnie and is starting his own line of organic edible face moisturizers, which he calls Face Food (something you’d think Boyle would have come up with if you hadn’t read the story).  Played by Mark Webber, Tank is bit of an enigma.  He lives in a Winnebago on the beach.  A VW bus is often parked near him, and when Lonnie and Clover ask on separate occasions who has been visiting, he says, “Some things are better left unspoken.”  He also acts as the movie’s ironic voice of reason, often spouting sagely advice to Lonnie.  On Lonnie’s first day off, the duo record a song together for the first time in years.

Lonnie: “I wish I could do that every day.”

Tank:  “Lonnie, I wanna tell you a story.  There’s a young man walking across a field and he runs into an old man who’s planting an apricot seedling.  He asks the old man, ‘Why are you planting such a new tree?’  The old man says, ‘Because I live each day as though I will never die.’  Then the young man says, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I live each day as though I will die tomorrow.  Which one of us is right?'”

Lonnie: “What does that mean?”

Tank: “Think about it, bro.”

The song they record is a transcription of Lonnie’s feelings on his trapping life, and this is obvious to everyone but Lonnie himself (he simply thinks it’s catchy): “It’s a soul-crusher, crushin’ my soul/it’s a soul-crusher, baby/waking up every day and playing this role/you love the soul-crusher, but it crushes your soul/you hate the soul crusher ’cause it kills your goals.”  Forget lyrical adroitness; this song has been extruded directly from Lonnie’s heart.  In a fantastic scene that shows almost nothing but Clover’s face for over a minute straight, Lonnie plays the rough track for her, and the fluctuations in her expressions (specifically when she knows Lonnie is watching her reactions) showcase her steadfast support of her husband even when she knows his creative work is a bit corny and probably not going anywhere.  It’s interesting to note that the phrase “soul-crushing” appears in Boyle’s original story, which may have inspired the jam.

Two important women aside from Clover appear in the film: Tipper Newton plays Jeannie, a secretary who is initially nitpicky about Lonnie’s work, but after news of the baby’s (fake) death spreads around the workplace, she becomes dejected and sallow.  Her inner tumult is evident, but she and Lonnie’s other coworkers must keep themselves composed, and Jeannie’s way of coping is to bring Lonnie lattes and cannoli; she even delivers a homemade quiche to Lonnie’s home. Eventually, she brings herself to call the house, and when Clover answers the phone, the lie is outed.  Alia Shawkat appears as Seven, Tank’s phantom girlfriend, who doesn’t show up until the second-to-last scene.  She relates a story of her own to Lonnie; the scene is shot with nearly the exact angles of the scene featuring Tank’s story, but Seven’s tale isn’t a shopworn parable; it is something that actually happened to her, and although the “meaning” of the scene is nebulous, it weighs much more heavily than Tank’s attempt to be insightful.  It’s a beautiful piece of reel.

Seven: “I love Portland.  I met an owl there once that really showed me where to go.  You know?”

Lonnie: “You met an owl?”

Seven: “Yeah.  Or it met me.”

Lonnie: “Right on.”

Lonnie’s other coworkers from the story also make effective appearances in the film: Radko (Gerry Bednob) is appropriately irascible, shouting over Lonnie’s every word.  Joel, played by Kirk Baltz (who famously had his ear sliced off in Reservoir Dogs), is more warmhearted, upset at having to take heat for Lonnie’s shortcomings at work, but who gladly covers for him after the supposed tragedy takes place.  There is a wonderful scene in which Joel seems much more grieved about the baby’s death than Lonnie (and understandably, considering that the former thinks it’s real), and seeing Joel’s sadness, we wish Lonnie had never told the lie.  This scene, along with another in which Joel and Radko present Lonnie with the collected donation money, provide a revelation that we hope Lonnie absorbs: these coworkers, people he imagines punching in the face every day, are actually quite giving and sympathetic, and consider him not only a part of their work family, but a dear friend.  Lonnie eats the cannoli, sure, but does he care that they care?

The film’s ending is heavily revised.  The original text of “The Lie” is cut off as soon as Lonnie’s deception is unearthed, preventing any real conversation or drama – how will the family move on from such a debacle?  I’m a big fan of anticlimax, but I needed another scene, and I do wonder if Boyle had anything to do with the film’s denouement: after the argument, Lonnie tearfully explains that he’s unhappy, that he’s stuck, that he wants more than anything to take care of Clover and the baby but has no idea how to do so with an unrewarding job and dead dreams.  “My music sucks,” he admits.  What follows is what he needed all along (and something we do not receive in the original): Clover’s feelings.  “What I’m doing sucks pretty bad too,” she says.  She’s not unhappily married, she’s not considering running away, but she’s buried beneath books, diapers, and the demands of her work, just like Lonnie.  The film is capped with a wonderfully organic “riding into the sunset” sequence, gentle, but assured.

I love titles like The Lie, titles that attempt definition, focus, and identification of a keystone.  In the film, it’s still pretty clear what the titular Lie is, but other lies are sprinkled amongst it: Lonnie’s career as a video editor; his hopes of making it as a musician (does he really believe he can go on tour at this stage of his life?); the couple’s “friendships” with wealthy pre-baby acquaintances; the thought that indie-rocker/hippie Clover’s true calling is law school and pantsuits.  Weixler’s performance stands out, and she radiates multitudes during a scene in which she gives Lonnie a look that, as Boyle writes, “spare[s] nothing.”  The filmmakers, using Boyle’s text as a storytelling springboard rather than copying it event-for-event, nicely round out their rendition of the story, and whether or not it represents Boyle’s vision, we must, as always, see the book version and film version as incomparable mediums.  Fading out on a stuttering blue landscape and seating us in Lonnie’s decrepit station wagon, The Lie spares nothing.

The Lie (2011); written and directed by Joshua Leonard; based on the story by T.C. Boyle; starring Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, and Mark Webber.