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 Long Goodbye (1973)

“It’s okay with me.”

I am amazed that Elliott Gould is still alive at seventy-one after the amount of smoking he does in The Long Goodbye.  He sparks up a cigarette in nearly every scene in which he appears, even if he was already smoking in the scene previous.  It’s an interesting satire of the health-conscious 1970’s California, and goes hand-in-hand with the other jabs at Hollywood that pepper this engaging private-eye film.

I’d rate Gould at the top of the list of actors who have portrayed Philip Marlowe.  Bogie and Mitchum and the others do a fine job in their respective films involving the character, but Gould really seems comfortable in Marlowe’s shoes: he’s relaxed and funny enough to be a nondescript neighbor, yet he gets serious when he needs to.  Maybe they should do another film with Gould in the lead, since I’m not sure there’s really been one since 1973.

The story involves Marlowe’s best friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) running away to Tijuana saying he had a fight with his wife.  Marlowe is arrested the next morning, being told by police that Lennox and his wife are both dead.  The gumshoe decides to plumb the mystery, meeting a variety of colorful characters including Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) and her Earnest Hemingway look-alike husband, played by an aging Sterling Hayden.  When you see this character’s ultimate fate in the film, it’s hard to deny that he’s a satire of Hemingway, but regardless, he’s one of the more appealing and interesting entities the film has to offer.  Marlowe’s quest also leads him to the bad side of a gangster called Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) and his motley crew of thugs, including the hilarious Harry (David Arkin) and a wordless, mustached gorilla of a man played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his second film role ever.

Most interesting to me are the scenes involving Marlowe’s domestic life.  He cares deeply for his cat, yet can’t make nice with him.  His neighbors are a congregation of women who meditate and do nude yoga outside (Harry: “I think they’re a coupla lesbians!”), and occasionally ask Marlowe to pick up groceries for them.  The women seem to fawn over Marlowe, but he never obliges them or even hangs around to say much to them, even when he’s got nothing better to do (his excuses include, upon being asked if he wants a brownie, “No, they hurt my teeth”).  One of my favorite scenes occurs when Marlowe is shopping for cat food and asks a grocery worker if they have a certain brand.  “Man, all this shit is the same,” the worker says.  Marlowe then asks if the worker has a cat.  “What I need a cat for?  I got a girl.”  When Marlowe is dragged into jail, the worker is there, too.

Some of the other humor, which seems clever only at face value now, was new and progressive in the seventies.  The best example is when two cops attempt to shake Marlowe down, and he says, “Oh, is this the part where I’m supposed to say, ‘What’s this all about?’ and then you say, ‘Shut up; I’m the one asking the questions?” satirizing the norms of storytelling whilst living in a story riddled with conventional devices.

Take a look.

The film is a great re-imagining of Chandler’s novel and surely one of the highlights of Gould’s career.  The way he deals with other characters (as seen above), especially the motley assortment he encounters in this story, make me wonder whether he wouldn’t be at home in a Jonathan Lethem novel – read Gun, With Occasional Music if you’re interested in an Orwellian twist on the gumshoe genre.  It involves a private-eye living in a future where the very act of asking questions is illegal.  Marlowe’s predicament in The Long Goodbye is at least internally analogous, and both protagonists discover what they’re capable of in the end (which, in both cases, shocks the audience, too).

P.S. “Nothing says goodbye like a bullet” is never spoken in the film.  I don’t even know what the hell that’s supposed to mean.

The Long Goodbye (1973); written by Leigh Brackett (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler); directed by Robert Altman; starring Elliott Gould, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell and Nina van Pallandt.