In Ruby Sparks, Paul Dano’s misfit novelist dates his own creation
It’s one of the most cherished legends of the American indie: A socially retarded ugly duck, despite making no eff ort to regulate his glaring emotional hang-ups, is discovered as a swan by a clearly out-of-his-league girl who loves him just the way he is. Buff alo ’66 (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) are the best-known examples of the spaz wish-fulfillment romance, but the last decade-plus has brought many also-rans, like the toxic Gigantic, starring Paul Dano.
It is appropriate, then, that Dano should star in Ruby Sparks, a loser love story that is also a moral-fable critique of the same.Dano plays Calvin, a one-hit novelist struggling through two dry spells. As his claim-to-fame tome has just come out in a 10th-anniversary edition, Calvin has writer’s block and meanwhile complains to his therapist (Elliott Gould) and brother (Chris Messina) of being unable to believe that any woman might want him for something other than his niche fame.
The shrink advises him to write himself an unconditional love story, and Calvin proceeds to think up exactly the sort of preciously troubled, whimsical, impractical, thrift store–chic, just feasibly girlfriendable little kook that Zooey Deschanel has made a career of — "Can’t drive ... doesn’t own a computer ... roots for the underdog” — giving her the adorable sobriquet of "Ruby Sparks” for good measure. It’s almost a parody of the type — and as Ruby Sparks continues, it occurs that the film is after exactly that.
Calvin’s brother, who’s married and has negotiated the post-honeymoon comedown, has harsh words when he reads Calvin’s first-draft feminine ideal: "Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real.” But then, in a burst of literary Weird Science, Ruby miraculously appears in the flesh, making breakfast one morning in Calvin’s house. Calvin thinks he’s finally having his crack-up, but he soon discovers that he isn’t the only one who can see Ruby — and just like that, he’s dating his own creation, who’s cluttering up the house with her awful paintings.
Ruby is played by 28-year-old Zoe Kazan, who co-starred with Dano in Meek’s Cutoff — they are co–executive producers here and apparently "romantically linked,” as are co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine). With her headlamp eyes and crimson bow of a mouth, Kazan has the sort of faintly retro prettiness that might make her a shoo-in for the next "It” hipster pinup, a trajectory her film and television work thus far would seem to endorse. But Kazan also wrote the screenplay for Ruby Sparks, which begs interpretation as a frustrated actress’ commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women — that is, for maximum convenience.
At first, all is harmonious between Calvin and custom-fit Ruby — there is sometimes exactly this feeling in the first elated steps of a romance, as though one might have invented this perfect other person. When inevitable incompatibilities arise, however, Calvin violates his own rule by returning to the typewriter, where he discovers that he can "edit” his creation, inadvertently rewriting her as codependent, dippily elated and bipolar — license for Kazan to run amok, with a winning lack of self-consciousness.
Dayton and Faris’ direction is never more than workmanlike, and they tend to buckle at high-pressure moments, interpreting bliss through French pop–soundtracked "fun” montages or Calvin and Ruby’s big confrontation through a squall of distracting eff ects.
The script also can be charged with a number of missed opportunities and withholdings: One wishes Ruby Sparks were not so demure in matters of sex, for certainly there are laughs to be had here.The treatment of the writer’s life is shallow, references never going further afi eld than Fitzgerald and Salinger. And there is, finally, no single moment that lets the air out of romantic wish-fulfillment as well as the single Seinfeld line reading: "I can’t be with someone like me. I hate myself!” (Although Calvin’s ex-girlfriend’s comeuppance, "The only person that you wanted to be in a relationship with was you,” comes close.)
On a visit to Calvin’s gone-granola mother and her outdoorsman boyfriend (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas) in Big Sur, a game of charades brings up the title What Women Want, Nancy Meyers’ film in which chauvinist Mel Gibson gets electrocuted with a hair dryer and is suddenly able to read women’s minds; it’s this sort of middleof- the-road, battle-of-the-sexes comic fantasy that Ruby Sparks aspires to. Taken on those terms, it’s a quite sympathetic movie, breaking down the Sundance cult of cuddly "underdog” vulnerability that is too often camouflage for self-absorption.
On that same visit, Calvin is given a frightful driftwood chair by Mom’s boyfriend, which he accepts with hesitation, for it is the sort of thing that would never "go” in his Los Feliz pad, ready for its Dwell magazine spread; toward the end of the film, he’s writing from the same chair. It’s a soft-landing punch line that, better than the corny kicker, drives home the film’s criticism of hipster-aesthete xenophobia: Don’t be so sure of what you’re like, it says, or what you like. You’ll miss a lot that way.
RUBY SPARKS | Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris | Written by Zoe Kazan | Fox Searchlight | ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark
TODD SOLONDZ’S LATEST, DARK HORSE, MIGHT BE HIS BEST
Todd Solondz’s strange, oddly moving new film stars Jordan Gelber as Abe, a fat, mid-30-something who lives with his parents and works for his dad (Christopher Walken). Garishly uncool, he wears horrible novelty T-shirts and drives a yellow Hummer; socially inept, he alternates between suspiciously easygoing politeness and petulant rage. "Humanity is a horrible cesspool,” he mopes to mom Mia Farrow, while on the downswing.
Abe invents a romance between himself and a beautiful, overmedicated depressive, Miranda (Selma Blair, reteaming with her Storytelling director aft er a decade), and, in a scene emblematic of his self-delusion, proposes marriage.Shockingly, she accepts. "You’re not being ironic?” she hedges. It’s a valid query: Most of Solondz’s scripted lines have more than one available read.
Dark Horse is a psychodrama in the literal sense: Much of it seemingly takes place in Abe’s mind. It’s a terrain cluttered with demons, in the form of feel-bad consumerism, fear of Muslims, sexual neuroses, hypochondria, paternal expectations, sibling competition (Abe’s brother is "marriage material” in every way that Abe is not) and relationships with mother figures that are both stifling and seductive.
The origami-like narrative is precariously hinged on a trope borrowed from midcentury soap opera, but its dismantling of otherness is graceful. If "graceful” is not a word you associate with the auteur of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, you owe it to yourself to see what Solondz has been up to lately. Dark Horse is the most mature film of his career, and maybe the greatest. —Karina Longworth
DARK HORSE | Written and directed by Todd Solondz | Brainstorm/Vitagraph Films | Nuart
AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE’S SERIES RAISES THE QUESTION: WHAT ARE SPAGHETTI WESTERNS REALLY ALL ABOUT?
Frame-filling, dirt-seamed showdown squints accompanied by a soundtrack that’s a menagerie of caws, grunting hombres, twanging spokes and livid trumpets. A division of cavalry in Union blue kicking up a wake of red dust across Spain’s Desert of Tabernas, standing in for Monument Valley. Sneering banditti with stiff , blond dye jobs swaggering into saloons that look like they might welcome Caravaggio and his 17th-century bravos.You simply cannot mistake a spaghetti Western for anything else.
The dissolution of the studio system and the rise of runaway production had already turned low-overhead Rome into Hollywood on the Tiber, when the era of the spaghetti Western kicked off in earnest with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, with a score by Ennio Morricone, the genre’s progenitors and certifiable geniuses. The cycle of Italo-Spanish–made horse operas played itself out largely over the next decade, whence come the overwhelming majority of the films in the American Cinematheque’s 21-movie crash course in the genre, with 35 mm prints lovingly assembled by Bruce Goldstein at New York City’s Film Forum.
Dollars’ Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood, then a Rawhide regular with an undistinguished film career, became the first star of the spaghetti Westerns, which usually peppered their multinational casts with Americans: Gone-to-seed late-career slummers like Joseph Cotten, humorously saddle-sore cranky in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 The Hellbenders; bilingual Italo- Americans like marble-faced Henry Silva and the volcanic Tony Musante; or the particular case of bat-faced, New Jersey– born spaghetti specialist Lee Van Cleef, who in middle age became a most unlikely international action star.
Europe had appropriated the most quintessentially American genre before (and Hollywood, it should be noted, has never shied away from appropriating other nations’ legends). Turn-of-the-lastcentury Italian readers thrilled to Emilio Salgari’s frequently Western-set adventure stories, while Salgari contemporary Karl May’s tales of a frontier that he had never seen were still being adapted as immensely popular films in the 1960s.
The real progenitor of the spaghetti Western, however, might be May’s fellow German, B. Traven, whose 1927 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (filmed by John Huston in 1948) set the cutthroat, materialist ethos of the genre: money over everything.
The spaghetti’s dog-eat-dog worldview, which saw the taming of the West essentially as a free-for-all for capitalist rapacity, was ameliorated by a ray of hope with the leftist sympathies of its so-called Zapata Westerns, a subgenre whose most prominent author was scriptwriter Franco Solinas, elsewhere a collaborator of avowedly Marxist filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) and Constantin Costa-Gavras (State of Siege).
Solinas is represented at the American Cinematheque by his quartet of spaghettis: The Big Gundown (1966), A Bullet for the General (1966), The Mercenary (1968) and Tepepa (1969). Each is set during the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, and each retells the story of the dialectical odd-coupling of a Euro-American venture-capitalist buccaneer and a peasant peon-turnedrevolutionist (the best is Lou Castel, sporting ice cream–man whites, opposite an itchy Gian Maria Volonte in General.)
Leone’s own most Zapatista eff ort and least seen film, Duck, You Sucker (1970), proves him the master of a voluptuary dream-cinema style light-years beyond second-tier eff orts like Tonino Valerii’s 1969 The Price of Power, which runs roughshod over facts to conflate the 1881 assassination of James Garfield with the conspiracist’s version of events in Dallas, 1963, succeeding only in drawing a facile syllogism.
It was typical typecasting that blond Northern Italian Franco Nero and dark Cuban Tomás Milián took Euro-Yankee and Mexican parts, respectively, and native audiences understood that the U.S.- Mexico dynamic in these films was meant to reflect the imbalance between industrial northern and impoverished southern Italy. As often as not, the politicized spaghetti Western said more about the frustrated leftist experience in 1960s Italy — a country that brings us the adjective "Machiavellian” — under the lockdown postwar reign of Christian Democracy than it did about America at the cusp of the Gilded Age. (In Italy, the spaghetti Western was superseded in popularity in the ’70s by poliziotteschi crime films, which turned their outrage toward the modern Italian city.)
If the spaghetti Western set out to redact the "Print the legend” idealism of its American model, it often did so speciously. (They were best when set in the carnivalesque climes of revolutionary Mexico.) It was, however, the weakness of the spaghetti Westerns — their disconnect from the land and the history that they were alleged to be portraying — that conversely gave them their greatest strength and bit of territory in film history.
Like The Beatles selling rock & roll back to America, rejuvenated and made new in Anglo accents, the spaghettis were a catalyst with far-reaching eff ects. Kidnapping the Western from the land of its birth, the Italians liberated it from any pretense of realism, taking off into the realm of pure invention.
Like most Italian films of their period, the spaghettis were shot silent, without the cumbrance of on-set synch sound.This process not only allowed later-tobe- dubbed multinational casts to pass as Americans but a greater mobility in camera work, frequently a license for cinematographic flamboyance. Moral self-seriousness gave way to the comic formula of set-up and punch line, as in the famous machine gun-in-a-coffin "gag” in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Django. With the difficulty of real on-set dialogue, increased burden was placed on the scores — a golden opportunity for Luis Bacalov, Morricone and his conductor/collaborator, Bruno Nicolai, all vital in creating the genre’s symphonic style.
In counterfeiting the Western, the spaghetti filmmakers cartooned it, destining it to spiral into ever-further outrageousness.Caricature replaces character — who can pay attention to the political text of Corbucci’s 1970 Compañeros when there’s Jack Palance swanning about as a reeferaddicted, one-handed falconer? Gianfranco Parolini’s 1969 Sabata has Van Cleef teaming with an acrobatic Indian named Alley Cat (Nick Jordan), who is perpetually bounding off of barely concealed trampolines, and William Berger, who carries a repeating rifle in his banjo.
The weaponry, as well as the sadism, grows ever more inventively ludicrous — witness avaricious townspeople fatally prying gold bullets out of a wounded man in Giulio Questi’s 1967 Django Kill … If You Live, Shoot!, one of the numberless ranks of in-name-alone sequels, soon to be joined in December by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Tarantino is the avatar of genre filmmaking for genre filmmaking’s sake, and the break with real-world context that he represents, for better and worse, begins here.
SPAGHETTI WESTERNS UNCHAINED | July 26- Aug. 12 | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and Aero theatres | americancinematheque.com
’NAM, WAX AND BOWLING: YOUR WEEKLY MOVIE TO-DO LIST
Thursday, July 26
Di di mau! The Deer Hunter, not just the best Vietnam movie but one of the best movies period, plays the Aero at 7:30.
Two free sneak previews courtesy of Cinefamily: Sundance hit Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about a semi-unsung folk singer from the late ’60s named Rodriguez, and the fake-guru doc Kumaré. Firstcome, first-served with online reservation.
Friday, July 27
A wistful tale of strained marital fidelity amid a violent storm, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques plays LACMA’s Bing Theater at 7:30 p.m. as part of Film Independent’s French Film Fridays.
Spoiler alert: Want to see Paris Hilton get killed in a campy slasher flick? Head to Cinefamily for a midnight screening of 2005’s House of Wax.
Saturday, July 28
UCLA’s Rod Serling retrospective presents A Carol for Another Christmas, the screenwriter’s nuclear-laced adaptation of Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. Highlights of this Joseph L. Mankiewicz–directed curio include Peter Sellers as a "demigod presiding over a Christmas seemingly from Hell” and the fact that it was produced in support of the United Nations. Screening immediately aft erward is a 1964 episode of the religious TV show Insight penned by Serling.
You want to see The Big Lebowski at Hollywood Forever Cemetery tonight? There are ways, reader. You don’t want to know about it, believe me. Hell, I can get you there by 9 o’clock tonight (doors at 7:30).
Sunday, July 29
A conqueror, already conquered? Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments — the 1956 remake of his own lesser-known 1923 version — plays the Aero at 5 p.m. Biblical epics aren’t so fashionable these days, but don’t tell that to Charlton Heston’s beard. —Michael Nordine