In Jim Jarmusch’s omnibus film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Steve Coogan, playing a version of himself (as he is wont to do), says that “Los Angeles is a nice place to visit; it’s an even nicer place to leave.” This sentiment pretty much sums up how I always imagined the city to be, too. Before my sister moved out there in 2005 to begin a PhD in urban history and planning at the University of Southern California, I never wanted to go there. The collage of images plastered in my mind featured stereotypical scenes I couldn’t see myself playing out: hard-bodies sunning themselves on the beach a la Baywatch, snobby Beverly Hills salesgirls turning away Hollywood Boulevard prostitutes from their designer fashion boutiques, and members of warring gangs killing each other and innocent bystanders in drive-by shootings—in John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991), Edward James Olmos’s American Me (1992), and more crucially, on TV news broadcasts. But overall, I thought Los Angeles was teeming with vapid and superficial people; they don’t call it La La Land for nothing. It’s where every aspiring film actor goes to realize his or her dream of becoming famous, and they still won’t admit it’s nowhere near coming true even as they’ve slung espresso drinks at Starbucks or waited tables for years.
Now my idea of the metropolis is (almost) completely changed. Believe it or not, not everyone in Los Angeles works in the film industry or even wants to. And people actually are born and raised in the city; they don’t just disembark from buses that originated in far-flung places. Aside from the year I lived in LA with my sister, I have been to LA on several occasions. The most recent was in May of this year. I have come to know the city as more than just a tourist would, even if I still can’t get my head around the linkages between freeways. You take the 101 to the 405 to the what? Oh, forget it. I leave all of that for my sister to parse, as she knows the freeways and “surface streets” like the back of her hand.
When I first came to LA in June 2005 with my dad and sister to help her find a place to live, we stayed in a budget hotel not far from MacArthur Park so that we could be near the USC campus and within striking distance of the other parts of the city we wanted to see. The area surrounding the park caters mostly to Spanish-speaking residents originally from Mexico and Central America, a reality you know is there but is hardly ever represented in the media. In fact, the movies present a Los Angeles that is overwhelmingly white, and growing up I relied on such pictures as Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994), Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), and The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996) as well as prime-time TV soap operas like Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) and Melrose Place (1992-1999) to understand citylife in LA. I’m happy to tell you there’s far more to it than this limited purview would have you witness. That being said, my family could think of nowhere else to go on our first day other than the ocean (pictured above). So we went to Santa Monica, even though none of us likes the beach.
My sister eventually settled at Sunset Junction, where Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards converge in Silver Lake, a one-time street-car suburb (if you can believe it!) and now a happening neighborhood lined with cafes, shops, and gay nightclubs. It’s situated between Hollywood and downtown (if that means anything to you). Yes, hipsters are here, but most of them don’t live here. When she moved in, one of the ways she described her apartment’s location was by saying that the laundromat where Claire Danes meets Jason Schwartzman in Shopgirl (Anand Tucker, 2005) was just across the street on Sunset. That’s all well and good, but I’d never been to that part of the city before. In December of 2005, I visited Silver Lake for the first time, recognizing landmarks such as the laundromat (it’s no longer in business) and marveling at just how real the city became as a result of my sister and best friend now living here. I got rather acquainted with Silver Lake over the course of a few trips west, and suddenly, “my Los Angeles” popped up in movies everywhere. If you look closely, you will also see regular neighborhood businesses featured in The Last Word (Geoffrey Haley, 2008), though the eatery Town and Country is now the eatery Forage; I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009), wherein Paul Rudd drives by a bio-diesel fueling station at Sunset Junction on his way to work (it’s moved since then); and Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010), when the newly out-of-the-closet Christopher Plummer cruises Akbar and hears house music for the first time. Cute.
Although Silver Lake is someplace very different from Laurel Canyon, I came to associate the bohemian atmosphere on display throughout Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon (2002) with the laid-back attitude of Silver Lake. While living in England, I repeatedly watched the loose rock ‘n’ roll meets uptight intellectualism culture clash drama because at the time it reminded me of home (wherever my sister is). I savored the opening credits sequence set to Mercury Rev’s symphonic song “On a Summer Day” and featuring stunning aerial cinematography of the LA freeways (clearly their entanglements come to symbolize the painful and dysfunctional relationships between and among the film’s characters). Furthermore, whenever I apply a certain daily moisturizing body lotion with a very distinctive scent, I immediately think of the LA I remember from my late 2005 trip because that’s where I first required it. The vision I have, no matter how incongruous it is to my lived experience? Laurel Canyon‘s opening montage.
A few months after this trip, my sister moved to another Silver Lake apartment, one where you can see the Hollywood sign from the window. After graduating from college in May 2008 and with a dour outlook on job prospects, I joined my sister there and didn’t leave until July 2009. So far, it’s probably been one of the best years of my life. When we weren’t at work or school, we spent practically every waking moment together. We walked around the neighborhood as often as we could to gain exercise, and we started the tradition of waving and shouting, “Hi, Steve!” whenever we passed by the 4101 Bar on Santa Monica at Sunset Junction—whether on foot or by car—because that’s exactly where Steve Coogan gets knocked out in the little-seen comedy Lies & Alibis (Matt Checkowski & Kurt Mattila, 2006). We went to the movies religiously, alternating among a national multiplex’s outpost in Burbank, a regional chain’s art-house location in Pasadena, and even ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood. We dined out at our favorite restaurants: Mako in Los Feliz (RIP), California Chicken Cafe in Hollywood, Spitz in Little Tokyo, and The Oinkster in Eagle Rock, to name but a few. What can I say? We got around!
We ventured to the west side less often, mainly just keeping to Century City’s shopping mall or the Hammer Museum in Westwood (near UCLA). You don’t typically see these places on-screen, but Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2012) caught my attention earlier this summer when I saw that Paul Dano’s reclusive author participates in a Q&A at the Hammer that’s hosted by his mentor, who’s played by none other than Steve Coogan. For someone who apparently doesn’t like LA, he sure can’t get enough of it, eh? Anyway, I also recognized Skylight Books on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz as the bookstore where Dano gives a reading from his new book, which is all about his experience with a made-up girlfriend (and that incidentally forms the basis of the film, too). Additionally, Dano meets Alia Shawkat for a meal at Figaro Cafe on the same street. For some strange reason, this section of Vermont is perceived as so indistinctly LA that it doubles for New York in Made of Honor (Paul Weiland, 2008) and Seattle in Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present). I’ll never forget Sandra Oh either giving or receiving directions while standing across the street from the Figaro and the orientation being completely inaccurate. (It may supposed to be Seattle, but couldn’t they at least maintain Vermont’s north-south directional axis?)
No matter how long I lived in LA or how often I’ve visited, before the family’s May 2012 trip out there (to attend my sister’s graduation), I never managed to see the historic Bradbury Building located downtown. On our very last day in the city, I made sure that we made pilgrimage there and paid homage to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), which you may recall is one of my favorite movies. The Bradbury, one of the oldest, continuously occupied buildings in downtown LA is where J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) squats in the movie’s future dystopic LA. From the photo below, you can easily see that it is far from being the squalid skyscraper on display in Blade Runner. More recently, it has appeared in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) and The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011), both of which lend it a more romantic varnish. Hey, that’s how I’m going to remember it, too.
Although I have lived here, I have only begun scraping the surface. As my sister would be quick to point out, LA is so goddamn expansive and diverse, it’s impossible to know it inside and out, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Unlike with Dublin, London, Edinburgh, and Paris (to an extent), there isn’t even just one or two “LA movies” that best frame my LA experience. They’re all over the place. Speaking of which, I would really like to view Thom Andersen’s approximately three-hour-long documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) some time, preferably in the city. Wouldn’t that make the montage of movie scenes set in LA all the more hyper-real?
In roughly 24 hours (hopefully): another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But let’s discuss this city some more; tell me about your movie-related experiences in Los Angeles. Which film(s) shows off the LA that you know from your own wanderings around the metropolis?
Some films—good and bad—stick with you long after you’ve seen them, for a variety of reasons. There’s an intricately choreographed five-minute-long tracking shot re-enacting the British evacuation of Dunkirk. The guffaw-inducing sight of a soft mannequin, a stand-in for a bad guy, being dragged along the subway tracks. John Williams’s two-note theme for the mostly unseen underwater villain. But cinema being an audiovisual storytelling medium, it is often what is said that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.
I love collecting movie quotes, but in preparation for this article, I actually had difficulty listing my favorite lines. Watching as many films as I do, dialogue from movies I love and feel disinterest toward inevitably and unconsciously wind up in my idiolect. My movie-mad sister is my best friend, and we often communicate in Movie Talk. But even now, I’m struggling to come up with an example of something that we say to each other—with and without hints of irony. Just as it is for practically all cinephiles, I guess films are just so ingrained in our brains, so tightly knit into the fabric of our everyday lives, that the origins of some movie references we make regularly go unexamined. Let’s attempt to change that.
Then again, there are also memorable movie quotes that don’t fit easily into everyone’s daily conversations. Most of the entries on the following list of my favorite movie lines fall into this category. I should also note that this inventory is by no means comprehensive; I may continually add to it as they come to me. I invite you to tell me your favorites, too, in the comments section below.
Let’s start with the line that inspired me to post on this topic: in Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake of the classic romance Sabrina, a charming Julia Ormond stars as the titular daughter of a chauffeur who has loved the younger, commitment-phobic Larrabee brother David (played by Greg Kinnear) all of her life. During the opening credits, which unravel as she narrates her lovelorn situation (he doesn’t know that she exists, that she watches him routinely woo rich women from her perch in the tree outside her apartment above the garage on his family’s estate), Sabrina heavily breathes, with the slightest hesitation, “David… did a GAP ad.” I love the combination of her sincerity and the ridiculousness of her words. It’s as if—at what age? 30?—she is a teenybopper.
To be fair to poor Sabrina, she also makes an astute, perhaps even eloquent, observation later on in the film, after she’s returned from Paris elegant and confident. David’s older, uptight brother Linus (Harrison Ford) whisks her away to Martha’s Vineyard. He pretends to want to sell his house there so as to keep her away from a now-smitten David (but who’s now engaged to the daughter of a tech tycoon Linus is doing business with), so the conniving businessman invites her to take photos of his property. An amateur photographer, Sabrina reflects on her lonely, voyeuristic existence growing up, all while snapping views from the Linus’s house: “Every time I look through a camera, I’m surprised. It’s like finding yourself in the middle of a story… I think I’ve been taking pictures all my life, long before I ever had a camera.” Doesn’t that make up for her simple, pathetic idolization of a smug, rich jerk? Besides, opening up to Linus (and influencing his heart to melt in the process) is just the beginning of her journey to discover of who she really wants.
Friends with Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006) is about a group of four middle-aged women in Los Angeles, three of whom are either extremely wealthy or very well-off. Yeah, yeah, it may be best remembered because Jennifer Aniston plays against type as the fourth friend who has no money—and some questionable taste in men—but the real star of the show is Frances McDormand, who plays a successful clothing designer with anger management issues. In my favorite scene, she waits in line at Old Navy and flips out when a couple jumps in front of her as she walks toward the cash register. During the confrontation, in which neither the cashier nor the manager sympathizes with her passed-over situation, she points her finger in the butting pair’s faces, accusing them of ignoring her and shouting, “Yes, those two people! With their stupid fucking faces!” Why do I love this line? First of all, I should note that I’m biased: McDormand is one of my favorite actresses. I always find her entertaining. But because she lowers her voice as she spits out this line, it sounds as if she’s a monster saying, “stupidfuckingfaces!” Brilliant.
If you’ve even just skimmed through the About the Site page on CINE FEEL YEAH, you might have noticed that one of my favorite comfort films (yes, like the food) is The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996). A woman-centered adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, it stars Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman as neighbors who start spending a lot of time together after insecure veterinarian radio host Garofalo tells an amorous listener that she looks like the “dumb blonde” Thurman when he asks her out on a date. It’s a long story as to how he’s given this impression when he first meets them both at the radio station. More importantly, there are many choice lines in the film, but my absolute favorite is a quick exchange between the two women. Garofalo is sobbing in the department store where she let a cosmetics saleswoman make over her face. Pissed off that society dictates women make themselves attractive to men through cosmetic enhancement, she says, “If I was a guy, I think women would like, line up to go out with me. I’m smart. I have a good sense of humor. I make a great living.” Without missing a beat, Thurman nods, “I’d fuck you.” Garofalo responds, “Thank you, honey. I know you would.” This dialogue effortlessly gets at the root of female friendships. They don’t know each other well at this point, but they support one another in the face of seemingly absurd adversity—especially from the small voices deep within.
The last two quotes I have for you right now are actually part of my everyday speech. Not only that, they are also the only two lines spoken by men to make the list. The first (or second-to-last, depending on how you look at it), comes courtesy of David Deblinger’s character in the sweet but acerbic and little-seen rom-com/satire of the fashion industry Intern (Michael Lange, 2000). Dominique Swain plays the eponymous gofer at a fashion magazine. During her tenure, she falls for the dreamy deputy art director, rolls her eyes at the shallowness of the industry’s top decision-makers, and even uncovers an editor’s selling insider information to a rival glossy rag. The intern befriends Deblinger’s flamboyant, straight-talking accessories editor, who, in the end, confronts another frustrated co-worker with the immortal line, “What’s with the angry?” Despite his sentence’s despicable lack of grammatical cohesion, I love to repeat it—ironically. You never know, if you use it to ask someone about what is making him or her upset, you might just put a smile on that person’s face.
I apologize: I couldn’t find a photo of Deblinger in Intern during my Google Image search. In its place, I’ll offer that I’m 99.99% certain I saw the actor riding the subway in Brooklyn once while on my way home (I think it was the No. 2 train). He was talking with his female companion, so I didn’t dare interrupt their chat to say anything. And definitely not to ask, “What’s with the angry?”
24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) is my all-time favorite film, and it is so highly quotable. I know it like the back of my hand, which is why I am usually disappointed in others’ estimations of its quotiness (can I coin that right now?). For example, I’d waited years to meet someone who had ever even heard of it. (Generally, whenever someone asks me for the name of my fave film, I have to repeat the title at least twice.) And when I finally did, while studying abroad in Northwest England, he quoted the movie back to me. How exciting, right?! Well, he chose the least creative line (“There’s a barbed wire fence! There’s a barbed wire fence!”). Well, to each his own, right?
Anyway, my favorite utterance comes early in the film, too. Steve Coogan, as real-life TV personality and Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson, directly addresses the camera following his exhilarating hang gliding experience in the Pennines (director Winterbottom uses mostly real footage of Wilson himself performing the stunt). In doing so, Coogan/Wilson steps outside of the film while remaining fixed in the frame: “You’re gonna be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film. All of that actually did happen. Obviously, it’s symbolic. It works on both levels. I don’t want to tell you too much, don’t want to spoil the film. But I’ll just say, ‘Icarus.’ OK? If you know what I mean, great. If you don’t, doesn’t matter. But you should probably read more.” Obviously, this is a pretty long, context-specific quote (he’s referring to the fame and fortune he and others attached to Manchester’s music scene cyclically gain and lose, by the way), so I don’t use the whole thing. I abridge it (“You should probably read more”) and try to imitate his flippant, condescending tone. Again, I never earnestly deploy the line, and I mainly just say it to my sister, who gets it, about someone else. After all, the movie’s all about irony.
For months, I’d been looking forward to seeing Ruby Sparks (2012), a quirky romantic comedy by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their first film since 2006’s runaway indie success Little Miss Sunshine. But on the eve of its release, I became slightly less interested after I read a surprisingly spoiler-less interview with the film’s screenwriter and titular star Zoe Kazan. In it, not only does she dismiss the label Manic Pixie Dream Girl from any talk about her character, she also, in my opinion, makes a bone-headed argument about why the term “should die.” I can appreciate that Kazan finds the term misogynistic, that it smacks of men failing to see women (or, in this case, female film characters) as fully fledged people with rich, inner lives who shouldn’t be reduced to their tastes in music and clothes. However, it’s misguided for her to believe that because a random “blogger” (she means the film critic Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club) coined the term, it has no creative clout. Surely she must understand that critics and creatives are in constant dialogue with each other, if not explicitly, then implicitly. (She is, after all, relating her views to an entertainment reporter.) Ultimately, though, Kazan’s argument falls apart because even she acknowledges that “sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life.” Yes, that’s what Rabin lamented, too. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (herein MPDG) persists as an archetype in film production and criticism, especially on the webpages of Vulture, with whom she granted the interview, despite critics’ and audiences’ frustration with repeatedly seeing this kind of female character. (Pop culture website Flavorwire recently posted a supercut montage purporting to capture, with mock enthusiasm, 75 years of cinema’s MPDGs.)
Having now seen Ruby Sparks, I am disappointed that, when asked by Vulture if she sees Ruby as a MPDG, Kazan did not say that, yes, in fact she is one because this film is a deconstruction of this archetype and thus explores why this kind of male fantasy is not only degrading and realistically implausible but also potentially dangerous. But just what is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and how does Ruby Sparks tackle it as a subject? I’ll warn you now: there are spoilers aplenty ahead.
According to The A.V. Club’s Rabin, who first used the term to describe Kirsten Dunst’s flight attendant in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown (2007), the MPDG is a polarizing figure, inducing film spectators to either want to marry them (for real) or murder them because they are so annoying (not for real). These happy-go-lucky, good-looking, kooky young women are never the main protagonists in films and “[exist] solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” As Rabin rightly points out, Natalie Portman’s Sam in Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State (2004) neatly conforms to this supposed ideal, bouncing across the screen all carefree, her love bringing Braff’s depressive TV actor out of a personal and professional rut. Because she’s cute. And the love of a cute woman is really all you need to solve your problems.
Well, Kazan takes a different approach in her first produced screenplay, which she admits she only started writing as a vehicle for herself and her boyfriend, the actor Paul Dano, after he suggested, upon reading the first pages she produced, that it would be a good idea for them to collaborate on their own film project. In Ruby Sparks, Dano stars as the novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, a prodigious “genius” who hasn’t been able to follow up his remarkable debut from ten years ago. Spurred on by a writing task that his psychologist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliot Gould) assigns him, he finally harnesses some inspiration and begins writing about a twenty-six-year-old high-school drop-out from Dayton, Ohio, who doesn’t drive. He finds all of these tiny details hopelessly romantic; I find them alarmingly sexist, as he fantasizes about a helpless girl. Calvin confesses to Dr. Rosenthal that he has fallen in love with her, which Rosenthal encourages so that his patient might finally finish a novel. Then, one day, after finding women’s intimates strewn all throughout his modern bachelor pad, Ruby (Kazan) suddenly appears in his kitchen, behaving as if they are in a serious, long-term relationship. Is this Pygmalion crazy or just plain lucky?
At first, Calvin is convinced he’s going insane. But once he realizes that other people can see her, too, he’s less concerned about his sanity, and he begins to question the ethics of the situation. Can he date his creation, a woman who has inhabited his dreams, sprung from his spilled ink? Calvin’s older brother and only friend, Harry (Chris Messina), had originally admonished him for writing a one-dimensional character, asserting that real women aren’t like Ruby Sparks because they have problems and ambitions, changing moods and opinions. They don’t exist to stroke your ego, to love you unconditionally. Harry, as a stand-in for the audience, speaks from his own experience with his wife, which has its ups and downs. He hasn’t so much settled as he has learned to compromise. This is not to say that Harry doesn’t embrace fantasy as a natural, healthy expression of desire; he wants to live vicariously through whatever sexual encounters—real or imaginary—that Calvin has to speak of. However, when he meets Ruby and helps Calvin innocuously manipulate her to comic effect, inserting Ruby’s French fluency into his little brother’s manuscript, Harry thinks Calvin is the luckiest man alive because, as her author, he can make her do anything… especially in bed. This scene is in the trailer, which, when I first saw it, rubbed me the wrong way. Harry’s sexist sense of wonder offended me to no end, but once I saw it in context, I understood that screenwriter Kazan includes his juvenile reaction to Calvin’s magical realist luck simply to subvert it. In other words, that Ruby Sparks is a film written about a man by a woman shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Like (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009), Ruby Sparks is a heterosexual romance focalized through the man’s point-of-view. In both movies, the woman is a MPDG and exists as something of an enigma to the man in her life. In the earlier film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt reflects on his now-defunct relationship with a spunky co-worker played by Zooey Deschanel, an actress most associated with the controversial archetype, having appeared as a MPDG in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Garth Jennings, 2005), The Go-Getter (Martin Hynes, 2007), and Gigantic (Matt Aselton, 2008) to name but a few. (It should be noted that she stars opposite Paul Dano in Gigantic as an eccentric, mystery woman named Happy Lolly. I kid you not.) As Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen goes through his sunny memories of their time together, he sees things he never noticed before, such as early signs of Summer’s emotional withdrawal from him. Due to the fragmented, non-chronological storytelling structure ofthe film, the viewer really only knows Summer through what Tom remembers and shows us. Summer‘s scribes are two men, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and they purposely keep her at a distance, but characterizing her so that she conforms to all of the MPDG’s contours is arguably lazy writing. In an interview with Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club, screenwriter Kazan mentions that Neustadter and Weber’s keeping Summer’s interior life outside of the margins of their narrow focus partly inspired her to examine the process by which men imagine and write idealized women, making “it textual, rather than subtextual” in Ruby Sparks. Thus, in her script, there are shades of Summer in Ruby: as part of a montage, Ruby rides around on her bicycle much like Summer does, and she’s sexually adventurous, tempting Calvin into public sex with her confession on the dance floor that she took off her underwear (Summer persuades Tom to try a difficult sexual position in the shower).
Ruby is the girl of Calvin’s dreams. But why does he fantasize about someone like her? He’s looking for someone to draw him out of his shell, now that his new terrier Scotty has disappointed him so. (He had pinned all his hopes on using Scotty to meet people in the park, but he’s embarrassed that his male pooch squats to pee and wonders aloud who could like such a dog. In his dream, Ruby, of course, does, as would any mature human being.) Calvin’s an old fuddy-duddy, resistant to change. For a man of twenty-nine years, he has some strange affectations. For instance, he shuns working on a computer, opting for a typewriter instead. He appears to have rummaged through Woody Allen’s closet. And just look how at odds he is with his own environment: he lives in a sleek, modern open-plan house in the hills of Los Angeles, surrounded by white walls and wooden floors. The indoor staircase railings mimic the one leading down to the outdoor swimming pool, and vice versa. He is so socially inept that it’s as if he could never take advantage of turning his house inside out before Ruby’s magical appearance.
I am always drawn to a film’s set design, interested in how a character’s living quarters reflect his or her personality (or not) and how other personages respond to it, too, and the filmmakers behind Ruby Sparks didn’t disappoint here. Nor when Calvin begrudgingly takes Ruby to meet his mother (Annette Bening) and her lover (Antonio Banderas) in Big Sur. Gertrude and Mort live in a kind of Eden, a sprawling estate overtaken by all types of vegetation and built with recycled materials. Mort, a sculptor who works with wood, has designed the house himself, much to Gertrude’s delight. Ruby gets along with everyone attendant for the weekend, but Calvin retreats to the tree-house and seems withdrawn during dinner. He treats the hosts’ shared lifestyle with contempt because he sees his mother’s radical change from preppy subservient housewife to outspoken hippie artist as a betrayal against his deceased father. He refuses to see how happy his mother is. As a man literally in control of his girlfriend’s actions and emotions, it’s safe to assume he just doesn’t care.
Ruby Sparks takes a dark turn after the improbable lovers’ Big Sur getaway. Ruby asks for more space between them, to which he reluctantly agrees. Missing her on nights that she spends at an art class or with friends, Calvin breaks his own rule and begins rewriting her. First, he casts her as “miserable without him,” but when her clinginess proves too depressing, too suffocating, he adds another line that puts her in a constant state of ecstatic joy, which is unbearable, too. Eventually, he writes for her to be herself, to act and feel as she would on her own. Later, at a book party, the lecherous author Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan, typecast again!), who is also Calvin’s mentor, hits on Ruby and talks her into stripping down to her underwear and getting in the pool. Catching her before she dipped her toe in the water, Calvin blows up. At home, he reveals that he can control her with his printed words. The fight that ensues is truly upsetting, as Calvin maniacally sits at his desk, pounding away humiliating scenarios that Ruby has no choice but to act out. The ominous score, as if plucked from a super-serious sci-fi picture and thus so out of place in a romantic comedy, melodramatically highlights the torture of this scene. It’s in this moment that, if you have not already begun to dislike Calvin’s manipulative mean-streak, then you might totally turn against him. Ruby is no longer his creation or a MPDG; by the time this scene rolls around, you sympathize with her and what she is going through. When the bombast finally settles, she locks herself in his room, and he rewrites the ending, releasing her from his influence and his life. I was so worried that something magical would happen overnight and she would instead choose to stay with him because she loves him. I was relieved that in the morning, Calvin awoke to find her gone.
The film inches toward its conclusion as Calvin buys a computer and begins work on a novel based on his magical realist romance with Ruby, published to great success as The Girlfriend. He returns to Dr. Rosenthal and pleads with the doctor to understand that he doesn’t need to believe his nutty story and that he, Calvin, doesn’t need to comprehend how it happened in order to move on with his life. At first, what happens next, in the last scene, ruined the film for me. Like Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, I argue that “Kazan winds up indulging in the very wish-fulfillment she initially sets out to deconstruct” when, walking in the park with Scotty, Calvin bumps into a young woman who is Ruby’s spitting image. She’s ditzy like her, wondering aloud how she might know him since he looks strangely familiar; after listening to her wishy washy evaluation of The Girlfriend, which she is reading when Scotty runs over to her, he opens the back of the hardcover book and points to his picture on the flap. Palm-face! They hit it off, and we’re meant to believe that they have a future together.
This is the wrong ending to an otherwise acute examination of fantasy, control, and wish-fulfillment. For starters, Calvin isn’t deserving of a woman’s love. Not yet. He hasn’t fully redeemed himself, in my eyes, after constricting Ruby’s independence. He may have let her go because he loves her, but he may easily have done so because their relationship was no longer tenable. Writing The Girlfriend barely atones for his maltreatment of Ruby; he’s still using her for inspiration and is now actually profiting from it. Plus, this conclusion bears too close a resemblance to the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). In it, the one-time lovers Jim Carrey and MPDG Kate Winslet independently undergo a procedure that erases his or her memories of the other. In the end, however, they meet again as new strangers, and we’re led to believe that they’re both fated to be together and to repeatedly break each other’s heart. I’m sure that Hornaday had Eternal Sunshine in mind when she griped that Kazan isn’t brave enough to follow through with her otherwise biting critique. Funnily enough, though, Calvin’s new romance with a Ruby lookalike also echoes the ending of (500) Days of Summer. At the close of that film, Tom has finally gotten over Summer and meets an attractive, interested brunette at a job interview. Sure, she doesn’t look like Summer, but her name is Autumn, representative of a new cyclical beginning.
In fact, the more I thought about the last scene of Ruby Sparks, the more I became convinced that Kazan is really hinting that a union sprouts between Calvin and the Ruby lookalike along the lines of the one in Summer rather than a reconciliation between Calvin and Ruby, her memory of him swiped clean because of his last words about her. Specifically, there is some ambiguity as to whether Calvin and Ruby’s love story ever happened to begin with. Calvin’s conviction that he doesn’t need his psychologist to understand that it was real to him or necessarily comprehend how it could have ever possibly occurred suggests Calvin is either in denial, crazy, or imaginative. I like to think it’s the last option, for The Girlfriend represents the novelization of the film story we have, until that moment, seen unfold on-screen. In this way, it’s possible that Calvin’s relationship with Ruby as we have seen it is actually confined to the page. The fact that the redhead in the park never introduces herself—and certainly not as Ruby—encourages the interpretation that she is someone new a la Autumn from (500) Days of Summer. Contrary to what we’re initially led to believe, Calvin’s only just met in the flesh the girl of his dreams/book. While this reading of the end is ultimately more satisfying than my first reactions, it’s still problematic because it means that his immature fantasy comes true after all. This mystery woman stuns Calvin when she says that she likes Scotty just as he is, neutered urinating position and all. Really, Calvin? That remains a sticking point with you? Your dream girl must not only look and act like the Ruby of your book, she must also shower affection on the dog you’re so ashamed to own?
David Edelstein of New Yorkrejects Ruby Sparks on the grounds that it’s merely “a thesis film, with one joke and one variation” (he’s referring to Gertrude’s happy co-dependence with Mort here). First of all, Stephen Holden of The New York Timesdefinitely disagrees, cooing as he does about how the film is “a sleek, beautifully written and acted romantic comedy that glides down to earth in a gently satisfying soft landing.” But I have to ask, what’s wrong with a thesis film? Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining and emotionally and intellectually involving. It is more than, in Edelstein’s words, “a fairly engaging parable about the crap men project on their wives and girlfriends, the sort of controlling fantasies that wreak havoc on a woman’s sense of self.” It is a necessary deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, a woman-powered corrective to the prevalent on-screen desire for, as Harry puts it in the movie, “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing [and who] are not real.” More than this, Calvin’s experience with Ruby demonstrates how such a dream girl becoming a real-life partner is not only an unsustainable situation but ultimately an undesirable one, too (he may not tire of her completely, but at least he recognizes that her resistance to his power makes him unfit to be with her and that’s why he lets her go). You should want a real person, not an archetype or fantasy. Ruby Sparks is about how, when your wildest dreams come true, your reality and fantasy lives become unfulfilling.
When Nick Pinkerton writes in LA Weekly that Ruby Sparks “aspires to” “the sort of middle-of-the-road, battle-of-the-sexes comic fantasy” that is Nancy Meyers’s What Women Want (2000), in which a sexist pig played by none other than Mel Gibson miraculously gains access to women’s unexpressed thoughts, it’s clear that he, like Edelstein, has failed to grasp Kazan’s message. Is this because these critics, but perhaps men in general, may not like being told that even fantasizing about a one-dimensional woman who represents a panacea to all their problems is wrong, especially when they probably are mature enough to never really want such a woman? I couldn’t help sensing Edelstein’s and Pinkerton’s underlying sexism when they each referred to the four-year relationship screenwriter and star Kazan shares with leading man Paul Dano. Edelstein begins his review describing Ruby Sparks as “Written by actress Zoe Kazan for her and her boyfriend, Paul Dano…,” circumstances which suggest that it was all the more easy for him to brush the movie off as “not a great movie.” (Remember, he called it a “thesis film.”) Pinkerton is worse, coming across as skeptical of Kazan and Dano’s off-screen connection when he writes that they are “apparently ‘romantically linked.'” It should be added, too, that he thinks that, since Kazan wrote the script, which he accuses of having “missed opportunities and withholdings,” it “begs interpretation as a frustrated actress’ commentary on the way that even ostensibly serious writers write women—that is, for maximum convenience.” The first missed opportunity he mentions? Potentially hilarious sex scenes. This reminds me of directors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’s grumbling that (older) male critics just couldn’t understand and appreciate their newest film, Lola Versus (2012), about a young woman confronting her messy life.
It’s true that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s direction isn’t anything to write home about. I can agree with Edelstein and Pinkerton on that front. But are the expectations that the whiz kids behind Little Miss Sunshine will deliver a masterpiece too damn high for some? I prefer Ruby Sparks to that not-so-original comedic family melodrama. I like to think that Calvin’s struggle to pen another book in the same league as his stunning debut imitates Dayton and Faris’s attempt to avoid a sophomore slump. Apparently, they’re really picky when choosing projects and love working with first-time screenwriters. So take that!
Having seen so many movies, made note of your favorite directors, and developed crushes on certain actors and actresses, do you ever watch a movie convinced that one of the performers on-screen is—contrary to the credits you’ve just read—another actor entirely? You’re not alone. What follows is a completely subjective list of acting doppelgängers, people who, to my eyes, bear more than a passing resemblance to one of their cohorts. I call some sets “twins,” and it’s been a bit of a struggle finding photos that can accurately show you how I could ever mistake them for each other. Admittedly, though, I’m so familiar with some of these performers that it’s impossible for me to confuse them with anyone else. Most of the pairs below represent struggles I had in my childhood identifying who’s who. Please feel free to sound out in the comments section below the pairs who regularly confuse you, too. (For the record, I extracted these photos from Google Images after conducting basic searches.)
Let’s start things off with a pair of actresses whose heydays were in the 1980s. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for better photos to bring out the physical similarities between Kathleen Turner (left) and Kelly McGillis, as she hangs on Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) co-star Tom Cruise. They’re both sporting off-the-shoulder tops, accentuating their wavy hair. Both stars were sex symbols in their day. Turner made her big-screen debut as a femme fatale in Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) and later embodied the curvaceous cartoon Jessica Rabbit with just her husky voice in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988). Besides Top Gun, McGillis was in Witness (Peter Weir, 1985), as Harrison Ford’s Amish love interest, and in The Accused (Jonathan Kapaln, 1988), as the attorney for Jodie Foster’s brutal rape victim, a decidedly less sexy role. I should note that I only think they look alike when they were younger, as today the women couldn’t look any more different. Presently, we don’t see either actress much, particularly McGillis since she came out of the closet in 2009. Turner, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, has been busy walking the floorboards, notably starring in a theatrical production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2005.
Next we have the British actor Ben Miller—not to be confused with Ben Miles of Coupling fame—and his lookalike the Welsh comic Rob Brydon (right). I first spotted Miller in Johnny English (Peter Howitt, 2003) as Rowan Atkinson’s sidekick Bough, and since he’s made a name for himself playing super-serious corporate or governmental honchos, including James Lester on the silly BBC sci-fi series Primeval (2007-2011). Rob Brydon, on the other hand, I’m much more familiar with. He starred in the 2000-2003 series Marion & Geoff as a taxi driver who records confessional monologues while stalking outside the residence his ex-wife, Marion, shares with the man she left him for, Geoff, of course. You might know Brydon as “Himself” in the Michael Winterbottom classics Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and The Trip (2010), opposite Steve Coogan, who also plays a version of himself in those movies. It may not be easy to tell from these thumbnail photos (the only way I could publish images of all the doppelgängers), but Miller and Brydon look so much alike that when you search Google Images for pictures of either one, “Ben Miller Rob Brydon” is a suggested search term. Hell, even I needed to look multiple times to identify who’s who in this image that I found online with the actors already juxtaposed:
Speaking of Steve Coogan, I think he looks a lot like Jack Davenport (right), from the Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters. He played Commodore Norrington who so wanted Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan but lost out to Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp’s swashbucklers. He’s currently on the NBC backstage musical soap opera Smash (2011-present), which I’ve never seen. As a fan of Steve Coogan’s work, including I’m Alan Partridge (1997, 2002) and Saxondale (2006-2007) to name but a few, I should make it clear that I don’t actually mistake these actors for each other. Searching for comparable photos was tricky, as Coogan typically has long, wavy hair these days, and Davenport has short and spiky hair. There’s something about the way they play pompous or clueless that makes me sense a closeness. At right, Davenport appears in character as the immature Steve from the British comedy series Coupling (2000-2004), and Coogan, at left, is the arrogant TV presenter Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002), which is my favorite film.
My sister is going to shake her head when she reads this: I continually mistake two actresses who are on the rise, Rachel McAdams (left) and Elizabeth Banks. My sister thinks I’m crazy, but hear me out. It has to do with their toothy grins, broad jawlines, and wide foreheads. It doesn’t help any that they regularly appear as blondes (I believe they’re both natural brunettes) and balance their filmographies with pretty much equal helpings of comedy and drama these days. In other words, when I watch a film that stars either one of them, I imagine that the other may have also been on the casting director’s list of actresses for the same role. For example, despite writer-director Woody Allen’s more pointed search for actors to fill parts in his almost yearly produced movies, I can see Elizabeth Banks as Inez, Owen Wilson’s shrill and obnoxious fiancee in Midnight in Paris (2011), a role that McAdams played. Similarly, isn’t it possible to see McAdams in Man on a Ledge (Asger Leth, 2012) or People Like Us (Alex Kurtzman, 2012) instead of Banks? Or is my sister right; am I crazy?
Let’s move Down Under and take a look at Noah Taylor (left) and Ben Mendelsohn. These Aussie actors are hardly ever up for the same parts nowadays, their physiognomies seemingly worlds apart. Mendelsohn makes for a much more imposing presence now, having played baddies in the superb 2010 Australian crime family drama Animal Kingdom (David Michôd) and the straight-to-DVD Nicolas Cage-Nicole Kidman starrer Trespass (Joel Shumacher, 2011), whereas Taylor looks like he’s withering away nowadays, as evidenced in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Richard Ayoade’s fun directorial debut Submarine (2010), movies in which he played each of the teen protagonists’ withdrawn dad. When I was younger, I used to mistake them for each other all the time (it’s in their mouths and speech!), but now they probably couldn’t be any more different. By the way, to add to the confusion, they have both appeared in the same films, including The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) and The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005).
In much the same way that time has made Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn look less and less alike, so too has it placed the doppelgängers Henry Thomas and Jeremy Davies on opposite ends of the spectrum. I guess what I’m trying to say is that today, the skinny child-star Thomas (left) has put on weight, particularly in his face, while Davies seems only to have gotten thinner and thinner. But look at them in these old photos; don’t they at least look like brothers? At least grant me that Thomas looks more like Davies than he does Brad Pitt or Aidan Quinn, who both played his older siblings in the classic melodrama Legends of the Fall (Edward Zwick, 1994). We haven’t seen much of Thomas lately, but Davies plays the sniveling snake Dickie Bennett on FX’s Justified (2010-present), a show whose just-aired third season I tried several times to watch but just couldn’t get into. I think these guys resemble each other because they have the same face shapes and they have been in films where they weren’t, shall we say, the manliest of men. See how soft-spoken Thomas is in I Capture the Castle (Tim Fywell, 2003) and Davies is in CQ (Roman Coppola, 2001).
The next pairing arrives courtesy of my dad, who hit the nail on the head when he said that the English actresses Gabrielle Anwar (left) and Emily Blunt look an awful lot alike. It’s impossible to mistake them, really, as there are more than thirteen years between them, but the similarities in their features are striking. It all hinges on their mouths, though Anwar may have a greater overbite than Blunt (sorry, there’s no nicer way of putting it!). If you do a Google image search for each woman, you will see how they both prefer to pout when posing on the red carpet, and neither likes to give big, toothy smiles (yes, these stills are something of a rarity on Google). Anwar had a bigger film career in the 1990s, appearing in such hits as Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest, 1992) and The Three Musketeers (Stephen Herek, 1993), which was beloved in my childhood. She has since re-found fame on the USA TV series Burn Notice (2007-present). Blunt, on the other hand, has been on the ascendant since her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006).
A few nights ago, I caught, again, Dutch writer-director Marleen Gorris’s Oscar-winning Antonia, better known in English as Antonia’s Line (1995). Watching Jan Decleir, the famous Dutch actor (left), I couldn’t believe how much he looks like the beloved English actor Jim Carter, probably best known as Mr. Carson, the butler of Downton Abbey (2010-present), ITV and PBS’s pop culture phenomenon about the fading British aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th century. But oh, how do I love Jim Carter! He’s in everything: Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998); Cranford (2007, 2009), which is one of my favorite British miniseries; and Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry, 2003), where he makes a hilarious cameo. I haven’t seen even the smallest percentage of Decleir’s many credits, but I remember him especially from Character (Mike van Diem, 1997), which also took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (for the Netherlands). The actors are roughly the same age (Decleir is two years older); isn’t their resemblance uncanny?!
So far, all of these acting doppelgängers have been contemporaries. They have all lived in the same era (our current time). But now I want to offer a different kind of comparison. Turner Classic Movies has featured Englishman Leslie Howard in marathons of his movies every Tuesday night this month. Although his credits span from the 1910s up to 1942 (his last movie was the Howard-directed R.J. Mitchell biopic The First of the Few aka Spitfire, which premiered in the U.S. less than two weeks after he died, his plane shot down by Germans), I see a lot of the actor Michael Fassbender in him. Catching the hilarious comedy Stand-In (Tay Garnett, 1937) on TCM, I was struck by how Howard’s uptight New York-based banker, out of his element as the head of a struggling movie studio in Hollywood, reminded me of Fassbender’s suave British Lieutenant Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). They’re very different characters, but the way they carry themselves seemed very similar to me. And the more I studied Howard, who I might add, is probably most recognizable as Ashley in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, et. al, 1939), the more I could discern Fassbender’s affinities to him: they both have very long, narrow visages with tall foreheads; extra slim, long, and narrow torsos; and when Fassbender plays posh Englishmen (or androids), as in Basterds or Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), he sounds a lot like Howard, who also directed and starred in Pygmalion (1938) as the condescending Professor Henry Higgins. My DVR is virtually full of Howard movies; I’m as drawn to him as I am to the magnetic Fassbender.
Since I’m in an historical mood, I thought I would point out that I have actually confused the younger versions of Karen Allen (left) and Brooke Adams. Allen is probably most known for playing Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), a role she later reprised in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008), and Jeff Bridges’s alarmed wife in Starman (John Carpenter, 1984). Adams is two years older and has more credits from the 1970s, including her starring role in Terrence Malick’s debut Days of Heaven (1978). I could never remember that it was Adams in Heaven and not Allen, Allen in Starman and not Adams. Both actresses have widely spaced eyes, wide faces with high cheekbones, and dimples in their chins. Not to mention, they both have pretty low voices. They don’t look so alike these days, and they haven’t been productive in recent years.
This last pair of celebrity lookalikes aren’t actors. Well, one is: Robert Carlyle (left), the prolific Scottish thesp best known for his stunning turn as Begbie in Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996), which is incidentally one of my favorite films of all time. His doppelgänger? Hockey great Wayne Gretzky! From 1979 to 1999, he played with one of the four following teams: the Edmonton Oilers, LA Kings, St. Louis Blues, and NY Rangers. If you cannot see the resemblance, I don’t know what to say. But a little back-story is in order. I really should credit my dad with this comparison because he refers to Carlyle, jokingly, as “Wayne Gretzky.” He learned of Carlyle when the actor starred in the 1997 British sleeper hit The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo), where he wore his hair blond, thereby more closely resembling a young Gretzky. So whenever he catches a glimpse of him today, usually on my TV screen, he’ll ask, “Who’s in this? Oh, Wayne Gretzky!” even though Carlyle, to my knowledge, hasn’t been blond since. You can currently check him out on ABC’s Once Upon a Time (2011-present), where he looks like the ghost of his former self. Whereas Carlyle has turned hauntingly thin, Gretzky, who’s less than four months older, has filled out more in middle age.