29 April 2014
And speaking of busy nothings, the academic conference. I returned from one, and frankly, the very best part was sharing a room with one of my besties from grad school — and watching Mansfield Park (1999) together.
Keeping this blog has allowed me to see a pattern in my life: when April rolls around and the semester gets tough, the not-so-tough (me) watch period drama. Even better if it’s Jane Austen, because she’s so playful and hopelessly romantic that it takes me out of the semester at its worst.
It’s been so long since I saw this version of Mansfield Park that I’d forgotten the ways that it finesses the original Austen novel. Mostly for the better, as far as I’m concerned. Fanny (Frances O’Connor) isn’t painfully shy, sickly, and insipid like she is in the book, and the script by director Patricia Rozema lifts extensively from Austen’s letters and papers as a way to imagine Fanny’s lifelong correspondence with her younger sister Susie as well as her wordy, playful relationship with her cousin Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller). Fanny seems all the more appealing because of her gift for words — and less moralistic, as I sometimes found her character in the book. Other aspects don’t work as well, like the film’s elaboration of a complicated slaveholding backstory for the Bertrams, but that seems less important to me.
Clearly, if you’re going to like this film, you can’t be overly dedicated to the novel. I wouldn’t put up with that nonsense if it were Pride and Prejudice, but I’m willing to let Rozema improve on the less perfect Mansfield Park.
It doesn’t hurt that it starts with an eminently appealing little-girl version of Fanny. Taken away from her impoverished family to live with wealthy cousins at a young age, she has never been treated as an equal in the family — except by her cousin Edmund, the Bertrams’ younger son. From the cold little garret the Bertrams provided for her, she busies herself with the pleasures of her own imagination — rollicking gothic tales mailed off to her sister Susie, and an irreverent “History of England” for Edmund. In this respect, this version is far superior to the 2007 BBC/ Masterpiece version.
She might be shy, but Fanny has a wonderful inner life. One wants to be friends with her. As they grow up, she and Edmund develop a bond beyond words.
And it might all have turned out differently, I suppose … until the family receives a visit from the fashionable new neighbors, a brother and sister named Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz).
The film plays the Crawfords’ appearance to great effect — everything about them screams “danger!” so I wanted to clap my hands with delight, because you know the real story is about to begin.
Mary Crawford looks just like a spider, with her self-satisfied smile and ruffled collar. This is no idle comparison; Mary is a spider, and the target for her paralyzing bite is the impressionable Edmund — to Fanny’s horror.
Henry Crawford is a beast of a different sort. If his sister appears laser-focused, his own inclination is a vaguer kind of troublemaking. Pushed by Mrs. Bertram toward her younger daughter, Julia, he keeps his options open, flirting with the newly engaged Maria Bertram instead. Maria, engaged to an idiot, is happy to reciprocate.
The Crawfords entrance the entire Bertram clan. These two seem to flaunt every ordinary social convention. Which is all well and good while Fanny can withdraw to the background and observe their machinations — but everything changes when Henry turns his attention away from Maria and fixes his gaze, for the first time in his life, like a laser on Fanny.
She knows him too well to accept his offer of marriage. She cannot trust him. She knows his rakish character too well. But Rozema’s film toys with us, leads us to second-guess Henry’s motives. Does he not, suddenly, appear sincere? Does he not appear to love her? When her uncle sends her back home to live in her parents’ squalid home in Portsmouth, Henry follows and woos her, showing little alarm at her parents’ poverty and misery.
He’s charming and wonderful. He appears completely in love with her. And in a hasty moment, she accepts his proposal of marriage.
Only to change her mind. How can she marry him, even if Edmund is due to marry Mary Crawford?
And yet the film does a lovely job of making Henry seem like a true lover. He really has fallen for her, we believe — and even after things go sour, I continue to believe it. It’s such a nice spin on the story, for it shows (perhaps) his ability to change, and Fanny’s willingness to change her mind.
My grad school bestie pointed out that Edmund is a bit overly judgmental — as a wannabe clergyman, perhaps this comes naturally. But considering how much he has fallen for the mostly-immoral Mary Crawford, the judgy sternness seems a bit out of place.
Out of curiosity, which Edmund do you prefer? I’m inclined to find both adorable, but are they too obviously adorable? As in, am I getting fed an easy pair of soulful eyes here by a crass casting director? (Ritson has particularly soulful eyes, obvs.) I’m not sure that either one is as perfectly matched with his co-star as much as he ought to be. I mean, a true Austen tale ought to have a perfectly matched heroine and swain, amiright?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
If you’re wondering which is the superior production, there’s no question: the 2007 may be a teensy bit more faithful to the book, but the 1999 wins hands down for the inclusion of all those delicious bits of Austen’s writing. Besides, Frances O’Connor makes a much better Fanny than Billie Piper. Most of all, the 2007 ITv production feels a bit as if everyone is acting solo before a green screen, with no sense of chemistry or drama between characters.
Sigh. This is one of those posts that rambles around. My attention is divided — and I keep staring at that stack of papers that I ought to have finished grading a week ago.
But perhaps this is all the more an endorsement of taking a look at the film as balm for the soul in these sad days of the late semester. Especially if you find yourself blissfully sharing a room with a bestie at a tedious conference of academics.
27 October 2013
Perhaps when I say that this film is set in 1959, you’ll roll your eyes and anticipate a Mad Men copycat.
Or worse: a copycat of those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day fluff pieces that promised some kind of “battle of the sexes” but only wound up sexist. Could it be as bad as Down With Love (2003) with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, reprising every awful sexist thing about the Day/ Hudson pairing?
The good news is that Régis Roinsard’s Populaire is not that film. In fact, it actually undermines the sexism of that time as well as in our memory of it.
As you can already tell, Rose (Déborah François) is a secretary for Louis (Romain Duris), a small-town insurance agent. Or rather, she wants to be a secretary. Her big ticket out of her miserably provincial hometown to a slightly larger one is that she has taught herself to type, two-finger style — and she’s fast. Louis has no intention of hiring her until she flies into her typing demon mode, whips out a copy of a letter lickety split, and looks just a little bit interesting doing it.
Plenty handsome, Louis is also a teensy bit tragic: long ago his American wartime buddy won the heart of his one-time girlfriend, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, whose long neck and knowing look make her perfectly cast as a glamorous late 50s woman). And maybe there’s something else about Louis, too — a bit of thwarted competitiveness, perhaps.
But just when you think, “Yeah, yeah, now the reluctant and slightly tragic dude just has to realize how wonderful the young blonde thing is,” the movie turns into a caper. Louis decides that Rose’s typing is so remarkable that she should enter the regional speed typing competition — and he undertakes to train her for it.
I don’t mean simply training on the typewriter, but a full regimen: jogging, piano lessons with Marie, and the slow and painful process of learning to type with all ten fingers rather than the two index finger method.
Sure, this is froth. Training for a speed-typing contest? But what I found delightful about the film was its insistence that Rose finds this shared quest to be exhilarating, and not just because she’s so taken with Louis. Their shared pursuit becomes the basis for a far more interesting relationship than virtually anything we’ve seen from Hollywood in 2013. (It’s been a bad year.)
That’s right: this film isn’t the kind of makeover movie in which a homely heroine takes off her glasses, flips her hair out, and wins over the handsome guy. This is some other makeover movie, in which you find yourself caught up in Rose’s quest to get faster on the typewriter. And once we arrive at the speed-typing contests — for there are several — the film makes you wonder whether such spectacles really happened, as they’re kind of wonderful.
Without losing its full head of foam, the film doesn’t really allow you to worry whether Rose and Louis will wind up together. We know full well that this is a shameless delivery vehicle for romance. But in the meantime it proffers a skewed view of a relationship between a man and a woman during the late 50s — one in which the man needs to overcome his self-defeat and a woman needs to get a lot faster on the typewriter.
And oh! the speed-typing contests!
Populaire won’t forge any feminist ground — after all, its raison d’être is simply to slather on some romance for those of us too weak-minded for much of anything else. But it does something interesting with gender here nevertheless such that its avoidance of all those antifeminist tropes manages to feel like a triumph.
Perhaps I protest too much. You’ll just have to watch and tell me what you think, won’t you?
If I haven’t already made it clear on this blog, I find Romain Duris handsome, which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. (His character is thereby complete.) And Déborah François is exactly perfect without ever being grating; she alternates between fierce determination, awkwardness, innocence, and talking back — such that when she arrives at the typing contest you just want to see how it’s going to turn out.
Will Populaire change your life? Absolutely not. Some of you especially cynical types might find it far too sugary. (But please, people — wait for the sex scene.) Will it divert the rest of you for an entire evening at the end of a long week? Why, yes. And thank god for that.
25 October 2013
I find the films of Nicole Holofcener riveting and grating in a way I have a hard time articulating. Think of Lovely and Amazing (2001), about that family of women so crippled by their distorted views of their own bodies; or Friends with Money (2006), in which the radical differences in income between old friends function as a social poison; or her most recent Please Give (2010), which examined death and belongings. This director plays her characters’ foibles for laughs for a while, then keeps pressing on that sore spot until it bruises. I kind of love it, even when it hurts.
Enough Said is easily her funniest and most sweetly romantic film. But beware for the part when it hurts.
Aside from keeping her bickering friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) company — and serving as a kind of moderator between them — Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seems on the surface to be just fine. Her massage therapy business, which requires her to lug her collapsible massage bed from her car into clients’ homes, is doing pretty well. Even if it’s a job full of ordinary annoyances, Eva’s sense of humor functions as a nice deflection away from any real feelings she might have about it.
On the surface, anyway. Holofcener wants you to keep watching, to pay attention to Eva — because there’s more going on than it might appear. Especially on the topic of her daughter going away to college at the end of the summer, as we come to see.
It comes as a surprise, then, when we realize in the film’s second act that she is starving for someone new to help her feel more secure. Not necessarily a man, but she agrees to go out with the wry Albert (James Gandolfini) nevertheless. She’s more enthusiastic about her glamorous new client Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet for chrissakes who owns the most beautifully well-appointed home Eva has ever seen.
In the meantime, she also receives surprising comfort from her daughter Ellen’s best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Whereas Ellen is starting to pull away — that inevitable period of the summer when college-bound kids start to imagine their new lives away from their parents — Chloe pulls close to Eva, almost replacing her own mother.
Not that Eva’s dates with Albert are inconsequential. Despite all the obvious reasons not to like him — he’s a really big guy, not her type at all — he genuinely makes her laugh, disarming her of the usual defenses. She grows visibly more relaxed around him, and although she’s clearly surprised to find herself liking him, those dates with him just work.
One of the things I find so beautifully romantic about this film is how Eva laughs with Albert. You can see the relief there, together with the fact that she’s disarmed by how well they get along.
But because she’s a little bit discombobulated, she can’t help but doubt how much she likes him. No matter how she feels when she’s with him, we can feel her holding herself back. Is this the fate of middle-aged divorcés, that experience triumphs over hope?
In a beautiful moment, Eva and Albert lie in bed together, ready to go to sleep contentedly, and Eva says, “I’m so tired of being funny.”
Maybe she lets herself fall so much under the spell of Marianne the poet because starting a new friendship with a woman lacks the scariness of dating a man. Marianne is just so impressive, with her mane of beautiful hair and her serious nature and the way random people come up to her and tell her how much her poetry means to them.
She’s also not funny at all. When they become confidants and learn about one another’s relationship issues, it feels so intimate. Marianne seems to want to push directly to something real. Eva just doesn’t realize yet how much it might hurt when she mimics her.
Holofcener writes funny dialogue without it seeming fake or knee-slapping high-larious; it’s the kind of humor that feels real. In fact, besides the beautiful acting job by Gandolfini as Albert, I’d say that the very best thing about this film is its dialogue and what it conveys about relationships between people.
Seeing this film makes me want to scream: this is why we need films by women writer-directors, because they often have a gift for conveying how dialogue between women is the very connective tissue of life.
So you’ll forgive me when I also say I didn’t love Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
It kills me to say it. When Seinfeld went off the air, I mourned for the loss of Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes. I still haven’t seen Veep, her HBO series, but I already know I’m going to like it.
Not that she channels Elaine here — there is no “get out!” — but in this more subtle, big-screen comedy/romance, the actress chews the scenery too much. Or, to be more precise, I liked her a great deal but she always threw her face into one more comic contortion than I could stand. I wanted her as an actress to stop it — to stop being a great small-screen comedian and let her normal face carry the scene. Perhaps this is simply a matter of taste — perhaps other viewers will find her utterly adorable — but it was almost always a shade or two too cartoonish for me, and I’m sorry (and surprised) that Holofcener didn’t edit it out.
So I was glad to have other characters to appreciate — not least was Collette’s actual Australian accent and her awful treatment of her husband and housekeeper. Collette has found a nice way of moving back and forth between TV and film work, clearly mastering the micro-expressions required for the latter while also keeping up the chops it takes to succeed in broader comedy.
In the end, this is truly an achievement for Holofcener as well as for Gandolfini. Even if he hadn’t died so recently and so much too early in life, it would be hard to watch the film without marveling at how delicately he embodies this other role far beyond the mob boss world in which we know him best. Here he’s self-conscious, almost gallant, in his appreciation for Eva, and his determination to maintain his own self-respect. The film may offer us characters whose defenses block them from moving forward in life. But it also allows them to glimpse what hope might look like, and to offer them the possibility that they can drop their defenses, their experience, and open up to something else.
1 September 2013
You sit down in the theater. The lights dim a bit while they spool up the previews, and a deep voice comes up over the black screen, as images begin to fade in. “In a world that time forgot, a new figure emerges” (or something like it), the voice intones.
99% of the time the voice is male. Until Lake Bell’s delicious romantic comedy In a World…, most viewers have never considered the the ways that this pattern that we unconsciously accept in movie theaters has ripple effects across gender behavior and expectations in our society. Nor is it just the film previews. Advertising that “counts” — i.e., airlines and cars, not laundry detergent or yogurt — pays its voiceover artists better and is virtually always a male domain.
The film pivots around the real-life fact that the “in a world…” opener cliché was retired after the death of legendary voiceover artist Don LaFontaine. In fact, the world depicted in In a World… is of the cutthroat competition for voiceover work in Don’s wake. Bell writes, directs, and stars as Carol Solomon, a wannabe voiceover artist who primarily works as a voice and accent coach and whose narcissistic father, Sam (real-life voiceover artist Fred Melamed), openly discourages her — believing he’s telling her the hard truth. “Dad, you’ve made me painfully aware of that my whole life,” she replies. “I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth,” he pronounces.
The comedy moves at breakneck pace through a bunch of subplots including Carol’s lovelorn producer (the ever adorable Demetri Martin), who desperately wants to date her; Carol’s sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), whose marriage to Moe (Rob Corddry) is floundering on the rocks of boredom and routine; competition and old-boy networks within the voiceover industry, particularly circulating around a sleazy upcoming voiceover star named Gustav (Dan Marino); and Carol’s ongoing quest to tape the interesting voices and accents she hears in the world around her.
Indeed, the film moves so briskly and features such an array of favorite comedic actors — including Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, and Jeff Garlin among the many I’ve already listed — that you get a lot more punch per minute than most comedies. Just taking the scenes in which voiceover artists exercise their mouths and tongues, or sit in steam rooms to keep the chords moist gives you a nicely weird and textured view of the lives of these people.
You should go to this film for the comedy — it’s just a funny, tight film — but you’ll stay for the feminism. The central problem depicted in In a World… is not merely thwarted female ambition or a failed father-daughter relationship, even as both of those problems matter to Carol. Rather, it’s that female voices get stuck in a vicious circle: women never learn to sound authoritative because there are no models for sounding that way. Worse, women learn patterns of speech like uptalk (ending words or sentences on an up-note as if asking questions), silly filler (the surfeit of “likes”), and high-pitched sexy baby voices, all of which detract from what women say, and therefore demean women’s authority overall.
When Carol rolls her eyes at the sexy baby voices, I wanted to kiss her on the lips. It helps that she’s so gorgeous in a normal-woman way — no discernible makeup, no nose job, no caps on her teeth.
Some critics have accused Bell of “dissing women’s voices” by mocking what women cannot help: that their voices can sometimes be naturally high-pitched. I don’t see it. Bell criticizes nurture, not nature — the cultivated Valley Girl tics, falsely high sexy-baby pitches, and girlie in-talk that women learn strategically or unconsciously as part of socialization. She also indicates, correctly, that these patterns can be unlearned.
Nor is this one of those movies in which the woman realizes her ambition by being better and more hardworking than all the men in sight. Remember G.I. Jane (1997)? Demi Moore showed us there that women can be Navy SEALS, but the plot seemed to indicate that it could only be true if they could actually out-push-up every man in sight.
In a World…, in contrast, doesn’t say that Carol ought to succeed because she’s the best voice out there. Rather, it says something more profound: that we need more female voiceover artists because it will directly and subconsciously change how people think about women.
I admit, I’m probably more hyper-conscious about people’s voices than most, so may have found this film all the more enjoyable (those who know me will laugh at the understatement here). My mother has a beautiful voice. I’ve written academic pieces about voice. I form unnatural attachments to certain radio or podcast voices and regional accents — Slate’s Dana Stevens, Christiane Amanpour (now with CNN), NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, PBS/NPR’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault, singer Steve Earle, and many others.
And on a personal note, can I just say that simply in casting Demetri Martin as the smitten producer, In a World… has given me a gift? Because there’s something about his sweet goofiness, helmet of hair, and fantastic schnozz that says LOVE INTEREST to me.
So what’s not to like? This is basically Feminéma’s wet dream of a film: a female-directed, female-written, feminist film about voice that stars a gorgeous but not cookie-cutter actor with a real-looking nose — AND Demetri Martin is chasing her. Maybe I need to see it again. You should see it too, even if you just like breezy rom-coms. And then tell me what you think.
I’m going to say it without shame: Moonstruck remains a goofy and immensely pleasurable ensemble film 25 years after its original release.
Here’s what I never quite realized on my previous viewings: it’s entirely about sex amongst middle-aged and senior men and women. Yet unlike the recent spate of Films About Older People (Hope Springs, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), it doesn’t announce a target audience. Rather, Moonstruck folds it all into a comedy that still works so long as you’re not determined to take any of it very seriously — and there’s nary a teenager or 20-something to distract us from all the older folks happily boinking. It’s kind of great.
When my mom saw the film back in the 80s, she pronounced it “stupid.” (She has no tolerance for frothy films.) So let me ask you to set aside your skepticism about silly films like this one. Yet despite its embrace of the goofy — as well as its over-the-top, romanticized Italian Brooklyn — the cast is great and the jokes remain really good. This film that isn’t trying to be anything more than diverting.
So it’s kind of delightful to realize that as the 1980s was specializing in teen-oriented sex comedies, this film let older people have and want sex.
Moonstruck is also a Cinderella story — in which the dowdy, grey-haired, humorless accountant Loretta (Cher) lets herself flirt with real passion and love for the first time since her husband died (and then she visits the beauty parlor!). She just got engaged to the foolish, 50-something Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) because … well, because she wants to change her bad luck in life. No, she doesn’t love him. No, this isn’t going to be a passionate marriage. As Johnny heads off to visit his dying mother in Sicily, we know perfectly well that he won’t last long as her fiancé.
Loretta moves through the same grooves of life she’s inhabited for years, such that even when she meets Johnny’s long estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), she doesn’t know what to do in the face of all his rage at his brother, whom he blames for maiming his hand. (Actually, one of my favorite scenes is in the basement of the Cammareri Bros. Bakery, where Ronny shovels coal into the ovens, and where Cage gets to do his kookiest and most interesting acting: “I lost my hand! I lost my girl! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!” You can see he learned a lot from making Raising Arizona earlier that year.)
So she takes him upstairs and cooks him a steak and lets him cool down.
Jeez, she’s stuck in a rut. Nothing exemplifies it more than when she attempts to diagnose Ronny’s misery while he eats his steak. “You can’t see what you are. I can see everything. You are a wolf,” she pronounces — a wolf who chewed off its own foot in order to escape a bad relationship with a disloyal woman. Sure, she sounds definitive, but it’s not even an original thought; she heard the same words out of the mouths of the bickering owners of the Sweetheart Liquor Store the night before.
Well, the joke’s on her: he sweeps her off her feet — yes, literally — and they spend the rest of the day in bed. Nor are they the only ones gettin’ it on. So are Loretta’s aunt and uncle (pictured above). So is Loretta’s adulterous father. So is the 50-something lecherous NYU professor (John Mahoney), whose girlfriends dump him at the little Italian joint where Loretta’s miserable mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) tries to get a quiet bite and mull over the fact that she has a philandering husband.
OMG, Dukakis is so good in this role. She won Best Supporting Actress that year, of course. What I like best is her little moans of comic misery. (Note to self: issue little moans more often.)
Now, one can argue that my premise is off-base — how can this be a film about sex for older people if we have the youthful, sweaty Nicolas Cage decorating the screen for us with all his chest hair? I was surprised to find he was only 24 when he made this film.
In my own defense, I think few would have read him as so young. Not only was he supposed to be the brother of the 56-yr-old Aiello, but Cage had appeared in several parts that had made him appear older (Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona), so contemporary audiences were used to reading him as older. I had pegged Cage’s character here as in his mid-30s. (I like it that he seems to have been on a roll with older women as he made these films: Cher [age 41], Holly Hunter [age 30], Kathleen Turner [age 33]; this says a lot about his particular version of appeal at the time.)
Speaking of Cage, have you played Nicolas Cage Roulette? This site will randomly call up a Cage film via Netflix for you. I got Adaptation (2002), a true classic. But be warned: you might get one of the stinkers.
The film also upholds real relationships rather than impractical and/or absurd ones, in large part by giving us a glimpse of Mahoney’s ridiculous professor who insists on dating his students. “She’s too young for you,” Loretta and Rose each (independently) pronounce about his affairs.
This statement — delivered twice, with the same affect, to great comic effect — encompasses less finger-wagging than you might expect, and shows how neatly the film was directed. Rather than sound preachy, the women simply mean to convey bluntly that adults should know better when they enter into impossible relationships. It’s less moralistic than matter-of-fact.
Which is funny, considering how impractical is Loretta’s affair with Ronny — he of the wooden fingers, he of the passion for tragic opera, he of the crazy “gypsy eyes.” When the sardonic Rose asks, “Do you love him, Loretta?” and she says, “I love him awful, Ma,” Rose can only say, “That’s too bad.” You know they’ll make each other crazy as much as they make each other happy.
But then we already knew that, didn’t we? — from the earlier scene when Ronny tells her:
Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice — it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed.
I know: goofy as shit. I love it.
15 February 2013
There’s nothing to like about this film. It’s Pygmalion/ My Fair Lady without an actual woman.
Ruby Sparks ought to appeal to me simply by virtue of its female co-director Valerie Faris and screenwriter Zoe Kazan. So why did these people waste our time with a story about such a despicable protagonist, a man so incapable of dealing with real women that he invents one?
Honestly, this is the most offensive Manic Pixie Dream Girl story ever.
You’ll remember that in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins brags that he can transform any woman, no matter how low-born, into a lady — why, he can achieve this so perfectly that a Cockney flower girl will pass as a duchess among the aristocracy; in the process, the misogynist Higgins learns by the end he has only given Eliza a new degree of independence. It’s not the most feminist tale out there, but Shaw didn’t let Higgins off the hook when it came to his cluelessness about women.
Not so with Ruby Sparks. Writer Kazan has given her protagonist Calvin (Paul Dano) all the power. A 20-something wünderkind whose first novel ranks just below The Catcher in the Rye (so plausible!), Calvin is hopeless in relationships, as his brother (Chris Messina) artlessly reveals within the first few minutes. Rattling around in the grand Los Angeles mansion he owns, our writer/protagonist is also blocked, a problem his therapist (Elliott Gould) seeks to help resolve. The therapist believes Calvin’s writer’s block results from a deep level of self-loathing; he urges him to find ways to imagine being loved for who he is.
So far, so good, right? Sure enough, Calvin starts to write about the woman he’s been dreaming about — a dreamy, sunshine-y, backlit vision of a woman. In his dreams, they engage in light conversation — talk that only a 26-yr-old man might believe was interesting, but who cares — it’s a dream, right? Meanwhile, he attacks his typewriter (yes, a typewriter) with new energy during his waking hours and produces pages and pages about this dream woman, whom he names Ruby.
And then she becomes real. If you consider the wide-eyed, baby-doll dress-wearing Ruby (Kazan) to be real. But hey, I was willing to roll with it.
She’s real, she’s adorable, and she’s exactly what Calvin wrote about her in his now-growing novelette about his dream woman. She walks around the house in her underpants, covered up with one of Calvin’s button-downs. At other times she wears perky purple tights, all the while looking approximately 14 yrs old. Or perhaps a little bit like one of those life-sized, open-mouthed sex dolls. What is she? Is she really the product of Calvin’s imagination? To test it, he pounds out a sentence on his typewriter — that Ruby will speak only in French — and sure enough, elle parle la français parfaitement. His brother delightedly begs him to do a favor for men worldwide by making her into a sex slave. Ha ha!
Even better, she passes all the tests — Calvin’s snarky brother likes her, his parents like her. The happy couple has one of those montages in which she do cute things to a soundtrack. Calvin likes who he is with her.
But gradually — inevitably — their relationship becomes something more than happy beach montages. And she starts to get more real. She has desires of her own — to get out of the house, to do things without him. Calvin retreats more into his study where he replicates the self-loathing, relationship-destroying behavior that pushed away those other women.
So he tries to rewrite her, to adjust her behavior.
Ruby Sparks wants us to think about the unsettling nature of such a male fantasy — a Manic Pixie Dream Girl that a dude can manipulate like a puppeteer — but it doesn’t want us to think too hard. This is more like the stoner version, which begins with, “Wouldn’t it be great to have an awesome, uncritical girlfriend who did whatever I wanted?” and ends with, “Whoa, maybe it wouldn’t be so great after all.” We are supposed to believe that Calvin learns something from this experience; that he deepens as a man. We are supposed to like him through all this, to believe he’s both capable and deserving of a happy relationship.
This was not my experience.
My own opinion is that Calvin is a miserable, rich piece of shit whose narcissism is not charming, fixable, or funny to watch (in fact, by the end of the film I’d come to hate Paul Dano). In this the film succeeded too well — its disturbing dénouement makes him all the more despicable. And to spoil the ending (not that you should see this film anyway), the story actually rewards Calvin. Not only does he transform his experience with Ruby into yet another bestselling novel — writer’s block cured! — but on a walk through the park with his dog, he meets-cute a Ruby lookalike (Kazan again) — and gets to start all over again!
So in case the message isn’t clear already: for all you self-centered men out there who can’t seem to sustain relationships, don’t worry! This film will not question your right to end up with adoring, baby-doll dress-wearing Dream Girls — far from it. In fact, it argues that these Girls are serially available in identical models!
Yay for feminism!
Now, back to my own regularly-scheduled fantasy: that I stab Calvin in the head with a knife over and over and over.