Twee – excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental.
At its best ‘the twee angle’ (for wont of a better phrase) can present a charmingly naïve view of the world that in turn leads us to look at our surroundings with refreshed, childlike eyes (see Wes Anderson). At its worst twee is simply a denial – a refusal to look at things head on, a frustrating, dishonest and manipulative trait employed for and by ruthlessly egotistical or emotionally weak individuals who’d rather take life as a prescribed dose of cutesy vignettes than face a proper engagement with the world and all of its wonderful difficulties.
Ruby Sparks, for better or worse, has a little of both aspects. It’s like an obviously clever child who’s a bit too good at giving the doe eyes, and for all it’s apparent warmth you can’t help but feel there’s something really very cold, very clinical, happening underneath. It’s an incredibly twee film that sometimes charms, more often manipulates, and never quite escapes the plot bind it fixes itself in. It’s populist schmaltz cleverly disguised as subverted schmaltz, with a plot that could have been a novel route to exploring some interesting themes – such as the role of fantasy in our lives – finally content to roam the colourless wastelands of the middle ground.
Ruby Sparks should be seen as a missed opportunity. The film flirts with the idea of really challenging the audience, but instead sucker punches them in the strangest way – by giving them exactly what they want – and leaves with their wallets. It’s part set on the West coast, but that cackling you can hear isn’t the gulls, and that swishing isn’t the waves – it’s studio accountants crowing with delight as they read the numbers off the ticker tape. It might just be the most cynical film of this year (and this year included We Bought A Zoo!).
Contrary to the aftermath, the experience of watching Ruby Sparks is on the whole a placidly pleasant affair – if a little close to watching the slew of ukulele-backed mobile phone adverts from the last five years rolled into one. Like you’ve dropped a few anti-depressants – sit back and watch what were formerly your brain cells pop like mellow fireworks in the distance.
The currently ubiquitous Paul Dano plays Calvin, a self-absorbed writer in a perma-sunny LA (where else?) whose first novel has rendered him a literary phenomenon at a tender age, but who currently finds himself rather lacking in the ideas department. As publishers’ demands to see some new work increase, Calvin can’t seem to get past his block. He’s lonely, but has no friends apart from his dog and his brother, and certainly no chance of finding a girlfriend, which is what he really wants. One night, he has a dream about his perfect girl. Waking up with the fire of inspiration burning hot in his belly he stays up for days on end tippy-tapping away on his beautiful vintage typewriter. Then things go weird. The girl he’s written about suddenly appears. Those vintage typewriters, man.
The film potters along in what is essentially a romcom vein, probably exactly as you’re imagining, and though there are some genuinely funny moments in amongst the achingly cute set-ups you’re always waiting for some kind of conflict.
And then Ruby Sparks dares to do what a romcom would never do – it gives you a taste of real conflict. This is where this film could have become really interesting, and ultimately, where it truly fails, backing away from the difficult questions it starts asking and giving in to a happy ending which isn’t just stupid but actually insulting – to everyone who’s gone to see the film, but especially to women. Without giving too much away, there’s a puzzling plot dilemma Ruby Sparks doesn’t even really try to address, breezing on past like a politician happily answering a totally unrelated question.
The film’s unremitting support of Calvin and his egocentricity is grating, and there’s a faintly misogynistic subtext in the action which makes me surprised this film was written by a woman. It’s called Ruby Sparks but really it’s about Calvin. Ruby herself (Zoe Kazan) has been written as an ironic comment on the two-dimensionality of female characters in film, literature and the male psyche but is ultimately a plainly two-dimensional character. What kind of a message is that for girls?
Zoe Kazan is very watchable, by far the best actor in this film, which is convenient as she wrote it. Paul Dano, so reliable when playing twitchy borderline psychopaths, looks a little lost having to rein it in. The material doesn’t suit him, and he lends Calvin an utter charmlessness that undermines the film’s desire to see something good happen to him. Antonio Banderas and Anette Benning pop up as Calvin’s mother and stepfather in a sickeningly lovely (more fantastic than Ruby herself) pseudo-bohemian life together – which brings me to my other gripe: if you lump this into the same broad category as Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are Alright (or as my mother had it The Children Are Going to Be OK) and The Descendants – decent, respectable, well made Hollywood films that confront ‘problems’ in a realistic even-handed way – you notice that these problems seem to solely be the domain of middle-class white people with large disposable incomes in a sun-drenched Californian (or Hawaiian) paradisiac alter-world.
This sun-drowned existence is, in the wake of so many films with such a similar aesthetic, so unappealing that it unconsciously starts to look like a kind of weird aspirational purgatory where these annoyingly well-rounded-but-still-lost people enact their problems without ever learning anything, imprisoned forever by a particular kind of dreamy living (what we might call the faux pastoral fantasy of the non-materialist middle classes) – their Organic Farmers markets, their Apple products (how it pains me to be at the point of saturation I feel more or less comfortable writing that line) and their non-committal fucking principles oh god shoot me now for any colour other than beige.
The irony about Ruby Sparks is that, whilst the character of Ruby is supposed to be an avenue to a realistic exploration of the falsehood of an unrealistic idealisation, the ‘realistic’ world the film is set in is itself a massively unrealistic idealisation. As the quirk drips out of every frame you can’t help but start to wonder if this has really been written, not by a person, but some kind of advanced marketing machine that’s spent the last three or four years amalgamating the popular life-desires among artistic, sensitive types. Let’s sell some vintage typewriters boys!
Ruby Sparks is out in cinemas now