Talking Movies

October 12, 2012

Ruby Sparks

The directors of Little Miss Sunshine return with a comedy-drama cross between Pygmalion and Stranger than Fiction that fails both as comedy and as drama.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a former literary wunderkind who set the book world alight with an epic novel when he was 19, but has since produced only short stories and is in analysis trying to crack his writer’s block. Dr Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) forces him to write about a woman who likes Calvin’s dog Scottie, as an exercise. Calvin starts to write about Ruby (Zoe Kazan), a girl in a dream who likes Scottie but is also very combative verbally. Soon he has written half a novel about her, and then she physically appears in his house as the perfect girlfriend conjured up by his imagination… Calvin think he is losing is mind, a conclusion heartily endorsed by his obnoxious sports agent brother Harry (Chris Messina). But a startling encounter with a literary groupie (Alia Shawkat) proves Ruby’s real…

Ruby Sparks is terribly unfunny, especially when set beside 2006’s Stranger than Fiction. There are good lines at long intervals, but only an amusing sequence where Ruby becomes insanely clingy actually lingers in the memory. Despite the fantastical set-up this is a game played with the oldest deck of rom-com cards. The man knows something the woman doesn’t, he wrote her, he doesn’t tell her, they fall in love, she finds out, they break up; can he make a grand gesture to win her back? Who cares? Ruby never sparkles enough to convince as the ideal woman, and Calvin isn’t remotely a loveable everyman. Chris Messina’s role is an empty cipher and he can’t showboat as all the script gives him are tiresomely predictable crude sexual remarks. Gould is tragically underused while Steve Coogan barely registers as Calvin’s pompous rival.

Instead of gags we’re given endless psychobabble masquerading as insightful drama. An awkward visit to Calvin’s mother (Annette Benning) and step-father (Antonio Banderas) is excruciating, especially as its sole (contradictory) purpose is to allow Ruby shrink her creator as ‘controlling’. Unfortunately Ruby hasn’t noticed that Calvin’s mother has been completely reshaped by her new husband, while the analysis buzzwords spouted by Ruby are almost identical to the self-justifying nonsense proffered by Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), who callously left Calvin weeks after his father’s death. Ruby Sparks is this week’s second release starring a couple, one of whom wrote the script, but this lacks even Hit and Run’s good heart. This is a quite insulting attempt to examine the male psyche by a female screenwriter who thinks such scrutiny means accusing men of not appreciating women.

By the end you’ll wish Calvin would just type ‘A grand piano falls on Ruby, the rope attached to it leads to an anvil that falls on Calvin, Road Runner appears and goes meep-meep’.

1/5

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Hit and Run

Punk’d provocateur Dax Shepard co-directs and also co-writes and stars in a hybrid of action and rom-com as a goodhearted ex-con who riskily drives girlfriend Kristen Bell to Los Angeles.

Annie (Bell) is a teacher in a terrible community college issued with an ultimatum by her boss (Kristen Chenoweth) – do a job interview in L.A. for the chance to create a course based on her unique approach to conflict resolution or lose her job. Annie decides to go, but it involves a parting of the ways with her boyfriend Charlie (Shepard), who is in witness protection after testifying against some L.A. bank-robbers and can’t go back there without endangering himself and Annie too. So of course he goes. Much to the chagrin of his case marshal (Tom Arnold), Annie’s controlling ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum), and, eventually and inevitably, the gang he testified against (Bradley Cooper, Ryan Hansen and Joy Bryant). But will Annie be able to forgive Charlie for the awful secret he has kept from her about his past life?

Some films possess a mysterious quality that makes you want to like them, and this is one of them. You are rooting for this film to work, and it so nearly takes flight that you end up feeling bad at its consistent failure to soar. Tom Arnold blusters for all he’s worth as a hopelessly inept federal marshal but while his slapstick scenes of vehicular mayhem have all the necessary elements they never catch full comedic fire. The cast is ultimately the best thing about this movie. Smallville fans will enjoy seeing Lex Luthor sporting hair but still acting like an entitled bully, while Veronica Mars fans will enjoy seeing Bell and her old 09er nemesis Hansen clash. Bell will never find as a good a role as Veronica but she carries this movie effectively with her real-life boyfriend Shepard.

The car-chases are the selling points of this movie but these are car-chases shot on a shoe-string budget with hand-held cameras, and while the three chases are good they’re not brilliant. Indeed nearly everything is good but not brilliant. Bradley Cooper has a standout scene with an irresponsible dog-owner that is memorable but quite questionable. Definitively not good are the endless complaining and explaining conversations between Annie and Charlie. These are meant to create a crossover hit by appealing to women, but they’re inferior to the very similar emotional confrontations that punctuate the gory carnage on Supernatural, and they make it increasingly difficult to care about annoying Annie. Indeed the funniest moment comes at the end of the film when her character is undercut with an absurdist cameo by Sean Hayes from Will & Grace.

It’s hard to dismiss a film so many talented actors volunteered to work for scale on but Shepard’s script has noble intentions yet just can’t achieve its own ambitions.

2/5

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