A sure sign that Autumn is close upon us comes in the form of the cinema shedding its rugged, manly, summer masculinity of tone and becoming altogether rather more feminine in outlook. Well, possibly I exaggerate a bit, but I can't imagine all those sprawling and bombastic superhero blockbusters being put together with ladies in mind. Romantic comedies of the ilk of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's Ruby Sparks are a different beast entirely. Well, this is being marketed as a romantic comedy, but I suspect this is simply the least inaccurate category into which to pop this strange film.
Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer whose career has been hobbled by his writing a brilliant and hugely successful novel at a very young age. Now he is in thrall to the tyranny of the blank page, seriously struggling with that difficult second novel (the film does bang into that old problem of how to depict somebody writing in a cinematic way – failing to find an answer, we just see Dano's hands and eyes as he bashes away at his keyboard – presumably for aesthetic reasons, Calvin is the only professional writer in the world still using a manual typewriter). He is finding life quite trying despite the well-meaning assistance of his family and agent. However, as a result of advice given by his analyst (Elliott Gould), Calvin finds himself beset by strange and vivid dreams, all concerning a free-spirited Bohemian young woman (oh, zzzzz), whom he christens Ruby Sparks. She is played by Zoe Kazan.
Calvin's dreams of Ruby provoke a sudden and welcome burst of creativity, but this is accompanied by odd events around the house: strange and rather intimate feminine items start popping up all over the place, to the bemusement of Calvin and his friends. Then, after a particularly intense writing session, our hero awakes one morning to find the previously completely fictitious Ruby in the house with him, apparently completely corporeal and utterly convinced she is his girlfriend...
Well, it's a novel opening for a film, I'll grant you that. I suppose it sounds like the stuff of a wacky, whimsical little comedy film, very mainstream, and quite probably starring someone like Vince Vaughn. But it isn't. Instead, to begin with it comes across very much like an off-day Woody Allen script brought to the screen by Miranda July. I am aware I am throwing in an obscure cultural reference or two in there, but that's the territory I'm afraid – the biggest surprise about this film is that it's got a fairly major mainstream release, because it has 'indie arthouse cult rave' written all over it.
This is the kind of film where the central characters float around with no visible means of support, basically surveying their own navels. There are lots of scenes where they agonise at length over their tangled psyches and personal lives with their much more conventional friends and family while having barbecues or playing sports, all in a very naturalistic yet terribly articulate manner. Once you strip out the central fantasy conceit, this is really what you've got here.
The previous film from these directors, Little Miss Sunshine, was apparently very well-received, which may explain the presence in this film of a remarkably strong supporting cast – as well as Gould, there is Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and a particularly good Steve Coogan. Chris Messina also does a good job of wringing a few laughs out of the script. But it's hampered by incredibly mannered and self-conscious performances by Dano and Kazan: the film soon turns into an examination of a romance between two of the most irritating people you will ever see.
That said, I suppose Zoe Kazan is reasonably good in a fairly demanding part – on the other hand (and given the nature of the story this is sort of ironic) she wrote the script herself, in addition to exec producing the thing, so she must take her share of the blame for a film which I found a rather trying experience.
Ruby Sparks doesn't really have the ideas to justify its running time and as a result it does feel like it's dragging on horribly in quite a few places. The poster for it outside the coffeeshop listed the running time as 164 minutes rather than 104, and as a result quite early on I was dismally checking my watch and trying to work out how they were possibly going to sustain the story for that long. Thankfully, they don't even try: another hour of this film and I might well have run amok in the cinema.
And, quite apart from the general tone and style of the thing, this film is palpably very indie-ish in the way it doesn't seem to want to settle down and be one particular thing. Okay, so there's a central romance going on – but there's also clearly some sort of statement about the creative process and that oft-mentioned moment when your characters achieve a life of their own being made.
(My characters, when I write fiction, show no willingness to do this, which may be yet another reason why my fiction is generally so lousy. Then again, as I'm planning another go at NaNoWriMo this year and the only book idea to achieve any traction in my head is an HP Lovecraft pastiche of such comprehensive unpleasantness I'm slightly repelled by it myself, perhaps this is no bad thing. Where were we. . . ?)
Oh, yes: and then beyond this the film tries to get into stuff about the nature of relationships and the control dynamics within them. There's some quite dark material here. What the film never really manages to be, unfortunately, is either consistently funny or romantically involving. It always seems a bit overwhelmed by its own irky-quirky BoHo indie conceit and style, and constantly a little too pleased with itself. The result is a movie that's being marketed as a romantic comedy, but didn't really make me laugh and actively put me off the notion of having a relationship. It's a competent realisation of a rather unsatisfying script – a distinctive film, but also a deeply peculiar and somewhat annoying one.