Six years ago, an independent comedy hit our cinemas and became a surprise hit.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was made for $8 million and shot over 30 days.
A charming but acerbic little road movie about a dysfunctional American family dashing from New Mexico to California for a child’s beauty pageant, it packed more gags into its running time of 101 minutes than most Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy movies combined.
The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and got a limited release. However word of mouth soon spread about how funny it was and it started to draw audiences.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’ eventually grossed $100 million internationally and received four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. It nabbed two Academy Awards for Michael Arndt’s original screenplay and a Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin’s wonderful turn as a grandfather ageing disgracefully.
With an ensemble cast that comprised of Arkin, Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and Steve Carrell in a beat up Volkswagen T2 minibus, it remains one of the finest comedies to come out of the US over the past 12 years.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was directed by husband and wife team, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton who established quite a name for themselves as the directors of rock videos for The Smashing Pumpkins, REM, Oasis, The Beastie Boys and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
But how do you follow up a success like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’?
Well, the answer is with some difficulty.
Inundated with dodgy scripts, the couple were loathe to rush into another film unless the story was right.
This wasn’t entirely surprising. When they were initially wooed by Hollywood, Farris and Dayton resisted studio offers to make ‘Bad Boys II’ with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and held out until Arndt’s script for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ came along.
For their second film they have settled on a screenplay by Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of the controversial cinema and theatre director, Elia Kazan – the man who gave us such classic movies as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ with Marlon Brando, ‘On The Waterfront’ and ‘East of Eden’.
Elia Kazan is a divisive figure in Hollywood. Championed by Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick as a major US filmmaker, he angered some Hollywood liberals by testifying in 1952 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and naming eight artists as Communists including the playwright, Clifford Odets.
At the 1999 Academy Awards, he received an honorary Oscar with Meryl Streep, Robert de Niro and Warren Beatty rising to applaud him but others like Nick Nolte and Ed Harris remained seated.
His granddaughter’s screenplay, ‘Ruby Sparks’ begins with a hazy dream of a girl bathed in sunlight.
The dream belongs to an introverted writer, Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) who has been struggling for 10 years to produce a follow up to the acclaimed novel he wrote when he was 19.
Calvin is recovering from the bitter break up of a five year relationship with an aspiring novelist, Lila (Deborah Ann Wolf).
In order to cure his depression and his writer’s block, he is set an assignment by his therapist, Dr Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) who asks him to write a story on a single page about someone who likes his dog.
Calvin has another dream of the girl (played by Zoe Kazan) who this time takes a liking to his dog and insists on drawing a picture of him. Professing her ignorance of F Scott Fitzgerald, Calvin’s dream girl charms him by observing that by naming his dog Scotty after his literary idol he is subconsciously cutting the great author down to size.
Energised by the dream, Calvin starts writing again on his electric typewriter – christening the girl Ruby Sparks and making her the protagonist of his new novel.
It soon dawns on Calvin, as he abandons his therapy sessions, that he is falling in love with his own creation and then something odd happens. He starts to find items of Ruby’s clothing around his apartment, he begins to see her and soon she moves in, causing him and his brother, Harry (Chris Messina) to doubt his sanity.
Can others, including Harry’s wife Susie (Toni Trucks), see her? Or is it all in Calvin’s head? If he is writing the story of a real life person, can he control her from his typewriter and make her do whatever he wants? Is that ethical?
‘Ruby Sparks’ is one of those films that will sharply divide audiences.
At the beginning, it plays like a West Coast Woody Allen but then starts to take some surprisingly dark twists and turns – Woody Allen meets Frankenstein, if you like.
Dano’s character resembles a Woody Allen hero – he’s intelligent, precocious, awkward, witty, neurotic, wimpy and has even got the spectacles.
Kazan’s screenplay uses a similar device of a fictional character coming to life as Allen did in his charming film, ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ – a movie which was itself inspired by Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent comedy ‘Sherlock Jr’. John McTiernan’s ‘The Last Action Hero’ starring Arnold Schwarzenegger tried something similar and badly bungled it.
The device works here because Kazan’s Ruby has the same kind of flighty charm as Diane Keaton in Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ . There’s even a visit to Calvin’s hippie trippy mother Gertrude (Annette Bening) and her free spirited boyfriend Mort (Antonio Banderas) in what serves as a neat twist on the visit by Alvy Singer to Annie Hall’s family.
But then the movie veers into darker territory when Calvin and Ruby begin to encounter bumps in their relationship.
As with ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, Faris and Dayton have concocted a movie that has enough charm, wit and bitterness to delight and unsettle their audience.
Faris, Dayton and Kazan do enough in the film to make you care how Calvin will resolve his predicament of being in love with his own fictional creation.
And while the movie may lack the out and out belly laughs that distinguished ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, there are still some amusing one liners.
The performances are good – not least Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in a potentially star making role – but I suspect those repelled by the film will find Dano’s neurotic character especially hard to take and, possibly, Kazan as well.
Chris Messina announces himself as an actor worth keeping an eye on as Calvin’s Alpha Male brother, Harry and there is a strong supporting turn too from Annette Bening who, as usual, is a joy to watch. Banderas, Gould and Steve Coogan also shine – Coogan plays a lecherous English author, Langdon Tharp.
Unobtrusively shot by Matthew Libatique and subtly edited by Pamela Martin, there is nothing frenetic or showy about Farris and Dayton’s film. While the movie marks a slight shift in tone for the couple, the musical soundtrack is familiar – they have teamed up again with musician Nick Urata whose group Devotchka provided the memorable score for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’.
Amid the constant barrage of crude Hollywood comedies in our multiplexes, ‘Ruby Sparks’ is a rare, if imperfect, gem – it is a delightfully performed, amusing and thought provoking take on the creative process and the arc of a relationship.
It may not set the world alight but it is certainly worth the price of the ticket.
However if its box office performance in the United States is anything to go by, Sparks may not fly on this side of the Atlantic.
‘Ruby Sparks’ opened in the Movie House and other cinemas in the UK and Ireland on October 12, 2012.