Movies

Ruby Sparks and The Watch

An indie gem with Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, and Hollywood yocks with Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn.

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Ruby Sparks is a clever riff on the ancient Pygmalion story. Here, instead of a sculptor, the protagonist is a blocked writer, whose lonely existence is transformed when the central character in the book he's working on suddenly comes to life. The movie is a glowing fantasy that approaches perfection in its character detail and its unlabored comic style, and in the way in it subtly develops dark themes of creativity and control as the story evolves.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, the writer. His first book was a critical hit (it's now a "classic"), but that was a while ago; he has yet to produce a follow-up. Calvin's life is romantically barren, but lately he's been seeing a girl in his dreams. He mentions this to his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould), and the shrink suggests that he start writing about her. So he does, naming his fictional creation Ruby Sparks. Then one day Calvin discovers some odd things lying around his spacious apartment—a bra, a thong—and in the kitchen he finds a cute cheery girl making breakfast. It's Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). "I missed you in bed last night," she says. 

Calvin rears back from this bizarre development. "I can't fall in love with a product of my imagination," he says. But then other people start acknowledging Ruby's presence, and engaging her in conversation (they all like her). As months pass, Calvin's mother (Annette Bening) grows eager to meet his new girl. "I'm beginning to think she doesn't exist," Mom says.

Calvin is careful not to let Ruby know she's a figment of his imagination, and, more disturbingly, that he can mold her to his desires simply by going to his writing desk and tweaking her in his manuscript—type in a line about Ruby speaking fluent French, and suddenly she's doing just that that. Calvin's initially skeptical brother (Chris Messina) is most impressed. "For men everywhere," he says, "tell me you're not gonna let that go to waste." But Calvin has no desire to change Ruby, at first. "She's perfect," he insists.

Naturally she's not—Ruby is all too real. So Calvin finds himself repeatedly returning to his keyboard to re-calibrate his new girlfriend. Too chatty? Just add a line. Too needy? Tap-tap-tap. This would seem to be a dream scenario, but Calvin is wracked by guilt – Ruby has no idea she's someone he created, and he can't bring himself to tell her.

The movie has a pictorial warmth (the work of cinematographer Matthew Libatique) and a cello-rich score that recall the 2006 Little Miss Sunshine, which like this film was directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. (This is only their second feature; they apparently make enough money shooting commercials to be picky about their film projects.) Dano and Kazan, a couple in real life, have a natural ease; and the script, which Kazan wrote, provides them with a number of emotionally complex and—toward the end—unsettling scenes.     

There are also strong supporting performances: by Bening, as the divorced, hippy-dip mom, and Antonio Banderas, as her hearty new mate; by Deborah Ann Woll (of True Blood), making a lot out of a brief appearance as Calvin's resentful ex-girlfriend; and by Steve Coogan, as the skeezy older writer who "discovered" Calvin. (Is it just me, or has Coogan become too believable playing this sort of self-important character?)              

But it's Kazan who emerges as a true star here. With her pixie grin and radiant sweetness, she could be the girl of anyone's dreams. Calvin can't believe Ruby has been hiding in his head all this time. "I guess I was looking for you," she says. "It just took me a while to find you."

The Watch

The Watch is a state-of-the-craft Hollywood comedy product, assembled by pros (Seth Rogen is one of its three writers, director Akiva Schaffer is an SNL veteran) and stocked with certified funnymen (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill). The plot is high in concept (aliens invade sleepy Midwestern town) and the gags, largely groin-centric, are sometimes very funny. The movie seems intent on being standard summer box-office bait. We'll see about that.

Stiller plays Evan, a Costco manager in sunny Glenview, Ohio. When his overnight security guard is murdered under mysterious, gooey circumstances, the earnest Evan decides to track down the perpetrator by forming a Neighborhood Watch (as the movie was originally called, before last February's Trayvon Martin killing; the new title suggests a story about a Rolex repairman.)

Evan is only able to attract three recruits to his team: a jumped-up construction manager named Bob (Vaughn), a prickly marine named Franklin (Hill, a stretch as a soldier), and a chipper Brit named Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade, of The IT Crowd). Also sprinkled into the mix are Billy Crudup as a strange neighbor, Will Forte as a snotty cop, and Rosemarie DeWitt as Evan's wife, Abby. There are a couple of subplots woven in as well, the best-developed involving Bob's blossoming teen daughter (Erin Moriarty); and there are a few surprises involving secret identities. Mainly, though, we follow Evan and company as they race around town in search of the very Alien-like aliens, who turn out to be advance monsters for a full-scale intergalactic takeover.

Stiller and Hill are fine, if unsurprising; Vaughn remains a master of manic abandon; and Ayoade, with his gap-toothed baby face and comically dreamy disposition, is the most special of the movie's many special effects. It's too bad (or maybe not!) that DeWitt's most memorable scene relies heavily on lingerie – she's too classy for these lowbrow proceedings. And Crudup is wasted in a role that never pays off in the sinister way you might hope.

The Watch is a well-tooled laugh machine, and it does its job. The familiar commercial genre of which it's a part, though, may need rewinding.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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