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Zoe Kazan, left, and Paul Dano in a scene from Ruby Sparks. (Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight / AP)
Zoe Kazan, left, and Paul Dano in a scene from Ruby Sparks. (Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight / AP)

film review

Ruby, Celeste and Jesse: young Hollywood twists the rom-com rules Add to ...

Ruby Sparks

  • Written by Zoe Kazan
  • Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
  • Starring Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano
  • Classification: 14A
  • Three stars

Celeste and Jesse Forever

  • Written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack
  • Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
  • Starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg
  • Classification: 14A
  • One star

Apparently there is some anxiety in Hollywood about the efficacy of the old boy-meets-girl formula. Recent years have brought us romantic comedies about people who are having sex but refuse to fall in love; who are having a baby but are just friends, and who are cheating on their new partners with their exes. It kind of makes you long for the decorous conventions of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.

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This week’s impediments to romance include divorce and non-existence. Turns out divorce is the larger problem.

Celeste and Jesse Forever is a comedy about a couple who are joyously well matched and should obviously be falling into each others’ arms by Act II, except they are already married to each other and are now splitting up. So why are they divorcing, you ask. Who knows? Certainly not the creators of the very confused Celeste and Jesse Forever.

Thankfully, we also have Ruby Sparks, a comedy about a lonely and blocked young novelist who begins writing about the girl of his dreams only to find her in his kitchen. Initially Calvin (Paul Dano) is terrified he is losing his mind but when he realizes others can see her too, he happily begins a relationship with the fictional but very winsome Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan.)

The meta-fiction concept of characters interacting with their creator is hardly original, but it’s neatly packaged here by Kazan herself, who wrote the script for this clever little charmer. Calvin discovers every sentence he types becomes Ruby’s action: He can magically make her speak French. This greatly delights his macho brother Harry (Chris Messina) who thinks Calvin is now the lucky man who can actually control the behaviour of the woman he’s dating.

Nice guy Calvin, however, ethically puts aside his writing, knowing his power over Ruby is unfair. Of course, he soon crosses that line, disaster ensues and Ruby Sparks nicely emerges as a metaphor for romantic love itself as Calvin struggles, like many a lover before him, with the gap between the self and the beloved other.

Interesting that Kazan wrote the role of Ruby Sparks for herself, just as Rashida Jones co-wrote Celeste and Jesse Forever with fellow actor Will McCormack: It is young Hollywood that wants to reinvent the romantic comedy for itself – or at least raise it up to a more intelligent level. In the case of Ruby Sparks, the pretensions are justified. Kazan’s concept is tidy and, in the hands of the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), creates a film that successfully comments on the perils of romantic love. Celeste and Jesse, on the other hand, is a picture waging a civil war between indie instincts and Hollywood requirements.

Celeste (Jones), a successful marketing guru and trend forecaster, is divorcing the charming artist Jesse (Andy Samberg) because he won’t grow up and get a job like hers. This might accurately represent the dilemma of every girl who is dating a slacker except Celeste and Jesse are so completely cushioned by the lovable personalities and vast wealth that Hollywood routinely assigns to all its romantic characters that their supposed predicament is just a head scratcher.

Oh, well, maybe Celeste will realize she’s making the mistake of her life and repent her ways, in good movie tradition. She does, but she doesn’t get a Hollywood ending: As director Lee Toland Krieger desperately attempts to keep this film on a comic track, his actors’ script awkwardly escapes him, insisting on its indie spirit in the last act.

There are admirable things here: Some amusingly raunchy antics from the couple (they like to masturbate lip balm tubes until the lotion squeezes out the top); some nice touches of screwball in Jones’ performance; some delicious comic work from her co-writer McCormack in the role of Skillz, the couple’s drug dealer and confidant. There isn’t, however, a consistent whole.

Fact is relationships can be messy and complicated and counter-intuitive and unromantic, but trying to turn that insight into a rom-com is a mistake. Better to stick with something truly romantic – like the notion that the beloved is merely a creation of the lover’s imagination.

Follow on Twitter: @thatkatetaylor

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