Saturday 18 November 2017

Sparks fly in fantasy rom-com

Gavin Burke

film of the week

Ruby Sparks

(15A, general release, 104mins)

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Stars: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Chris Messina

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Sparks fly in fantasy rom-com

There's a difference between what men want and What Men Want. The former is a dark, unsettling drama that explores the ugly logical conclusion of the archetypal male fantasy (a woman who cooks and is sexually available), while the latter is a fluffy romantic comedy that bounces around its High Concept notion with no regard for its murkier side. It might star Katherine Heigl.

Ruby Sparks explores the former but doesn't mind slipping a few Katherine Heiglisms into the mix either. It should be pointed out now that Katherine Heigl does not actually appear in the movie.

Shy Calvin (Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood) became an overnight sensation at 19 when he penned a best-selling novel, but he has been unable to replicate that success. His days now are divided up between visits to his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) and staring at the blank page sitting in his typewriter.

When he eventually sleeps, he dreams of the perfect girl -- a girl who simply wants to talk to him because so many rarely do -- and when one such dream inspires a bout of productivity, Calvin finds that his writing has literally willed the girl, Ruby (Elia Kazan's granddaughter Zoe, who also wrote the script), into being.

Thoughts that he's finally lost his mind are eased when loudmouth brother Harry (Chris Messina, The Newsroom) comes to dinner -- he can see her too, as can Harry's wife and Calvin's mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas).

Although pressurised by Harry to tweak Zoe here and there -- make her French, give her bigger boobs, etc -- Calvin swears he will never alter her. It wouldn't be right, he reckons. However, as Zoe begins to lose interest in Calvin, he becomes tempted to 'adjust' certain aspects of her behaviour, each one with drastic consequences.

Ruby Sparks is a movie of two halves. It may boast a decent idea and great chemistry between Dano and Kazan, but the first half is less convincing than its second. It seems unsure what it wants to be -- an indie rom-com with High Concept notions or vice versa?

Maybe it's fooling the audience, lulling us into a false sense of security as to what to expect, but it's rather obvious fare and isn't as funny or as smart as it thinks it is.

Then, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly when, it all changes and becomes a darker beast, as Kazan's thoughts on supposed male fantasy become troubling. The transition is seamless too, as directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine, are a dab hand with mixing tones to good effect.

This comic drama avoids the obvious jokes: when Ruby isn't 'in the mood' one night, Calvin doesn't hop out of bed and write that she is. And the typewriter isn't magic: Calvin didn't buy it from an old one-eyed Chinese man who smokes from a long pipe and warns him not to write after midnight.

(Actually, it's best to avoid the science of it all. Kazan certainly does, offering no explanation as to how this has come to pass).

Men and fantasy characters have a long history in Hollywood. Anthony Michael Hall created Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science, Tom Hanks taught Daryl Hannah how to behave in Splash, Andrew McCarthy got up to all sorts with Kim Cattrall's Mannequin and Ryan Gosling found his ideal woman in a silent sex doll in Lars And The Real Girl.

Ruby Sparks dares to tread similar ground as Lars -- when the fun and games stop, we're left with a stark portrayal of a sad, lonely man who needs help. And it still manages to be a date movie.

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