Credits: Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Chris Messina, Alia Shawkat, Aasif Mandvi and Deborah Ann Woll.
Details: (M), 104 mins, In Cinemas 20 September 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: A novelist struggling (Paul Dano) with writer's block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character (Zoe Kazan) he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.
Literary love affair one for the heart and head.
this film has teeth, and can bite as easily as smile
One of the more enduring memes in recent film criticism appeared in 2005, when US reviewer Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” in a review of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, for the American website The AV Club. He was referring specifically to the character played in that film by Kirsten Dunst, but might as easily have been talking about Natalie Portman’s character from Garden State, or Sally Hawkins’ Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky, or pretty much anything with Zooey Deschanel. (And—if you want to draw a slightly longer bow—Ruth Gordon’s Maude from Harold and Maude.)
The defining characteristic of the MPDG is her lack of any imperatives beyond the most immediate and magnanimous; she is, according to Rabin, a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Perhaps inevitably, the term has been criticised for being reductive and misogynistic—not least, by actress-playwright Zoe Kazan. (“I want it to die,” she told journalist Patti Greco recently.) Yet given this stated antipathy to the concept, Ruby Sparks—Kazan’s first screenplay, in which she stars alongside offscreen boyfriend Paul Dano—seems rather a curious way of settling the argument.
For how else to describe Kazan’s character: a fictional construct, willed into existence by a young author failing dismally to connect with women (or indeed, anybody) in his real life, and literally devoid of any wants except those with which her lover-creator has invested her? In coming to life—a device which the script, wisely, never bothers to explain, leaving it a mystery as ineffable as the creative process itself—Ruby provides her “broodingly soulful” maker, not only with the new story that’s been eluding him for the better part of a decade, but with a whole reason to live.
But the script’s saving grace, and the film’s ace, is its willingness to question the premise from within. If the set-up is little more than a series of borrowed moves—a basic conceit borrowed from Weird Science (or, earlier, the Ava Gardner vehicle One Touch of Venus), the meta-fictional framework of Stranger Than Fiction—its exploration is thoughtful, complex and assured: by the end, Kazan/Ruby has offered a scathing study of the arrogant aloofness of the creative temperament, a critique of the terms of (male) authorship, whether in literature or in relationships, and a strident defence of female complexity . . . all, remarkably, via a protagonist as deliberately powerless as any piece of Michael Bay eye-candy. Only the final scene, a concession to rom-com convention, disappoints—while also raising more issues, potentially, than it resolves.
After good performances in small indies (L.I.E., The King), Paul Dano first came to broad attention with Little Miss Sunshine, and here he re-teams with that film’s husband-and-wife directing team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, for their first feature since that debut. As the blocked, neurotic author Calvin, he’s reminiscent at times of the young Dustin Hoffman—the same wary intelligence, the same sense of emotional distance—which lends his scenes with Elliot Gould, as his therapist, a sneaky, cross-generational fizz; he also displays an unexpected talent for physical comedy. And he’s well-matched by Kazan, whose dawning realisation of her predicament leads to a final, protracted confrontation, when her creator reveals that he can, and does, control her every move. It’s a tough, unsparing scene—and Dayton and Faris don’t shirk from its horror or humiliation. Proof that this film has teeth, and can bite as easily as smile.
The supporting cast is equally strong, with Alia Shawkat delivering a striking cameo as a nervily intense literary groupie, and Steve Coogan as a louche rival novelist, resentful of Calvin’s precocity.
Judging from his house, and Calvin’s sterile but chic apartment, the literary-fiction game is unusually remunerative, at least in the US. But then, this is a fantasy—and the film is, in some ways, a valentine to Los Angeles, a city where the lines separating reality and fiction, between a real and created Self, are anyway notoriously blurred; a shot of Calvin and Ruby driving at twilight, with the lights of Los Feliz glowing around them, is itself as magical as any prose rhapsody Calvin could conceive. Dayton and Faris are better known as music-video directors, and have now bought to both their theatrical features a visual sensibility more refined than the over-lit, conventionally framed, essentially sitcom-ish aesthetic favoured by many contemporary Hollywood comedy filmmakers. (Aided, in this instance, by the cinematography of frequent Darren Aronofsky cameraman Matthew Libatique.)
The result is funny, stylish, and refreshingly smart. A scene in which Ruby calls Calvin out for naming his dog after F. Scott Fitzgerald (and thereby “putting [his idol] in his place”) makes you long for more, for the very qualities classic Hollywood comedies once possessed in abundance—clever, witty, beguiling people saying clever, witty, interesting things. This is hardly My Man Godfrey. But compared to most modern-day US comedies, it’s a model of sophistication.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
Land, Money and Power… Dig deep into Australia’s epic history of mining.
The Tony award-winner sings Broadway numbers and re-imagines modern tunes from Lady Gaga to Sting.