Monday, August 20, 2012

These Indie Kids With Their Surreal Anti-Rom Coms…

This summer has been thankfully free of commercial romantic comedies.

There haven’t been any brightly-lit Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston vehicles in which they keep the Meg Ryan rom com fire going with the time-tested true-love-wins-in-the-end formula that I’ve been aware of.

There hasn’t even been a contender for all-star ensemble rom com like last year’s sleeper hit CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

But hold on, that’s at the multiplexes.

What about at the art houses? Well, there are a couple of movies that, at first glance, look like rom coms. Look a little closer, and you’ll see that they are anti-rom coms, that is, comical love stories, but layered with cynicism, realism, and existentialism. And then there’s the surreal element.

Like in first-time director Colin Trevorrow’s SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED from a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Derek Connoly, now playing at the Rialto in Raleigh.

Aubrey Plaza, from the very funny NBC show Parks and Recreation, stars as a jaded young woman interning at a magazine in Seattle (Seattle Magazine, duh), who comes off like a spiritual descendant of Daniel Clowe’s Enid from both the comic book and movie GHOST WORLD. Plaza’s father (Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin) thinks she’s in a funk (he embarrassingly thinks she’s a virgin too), and encourages her to get out and be social. So far, so rom com.

It veers off that well trodden trail, when our surly sarcastic heroine jumps at the chance to work on a story pitched by Jake M. Johnson (from the Fox Zooey Deschanel show New Girl) about what’s behind a classified ad that states: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”

Plaza discovers that a scruffy Mark Duplass (who appears to be in every other indie film this year) wrote the ad, so she applies for the time traveling companion position. Meanwhile, it turns out that the smarmy Johnson, who at least owns up to being a crass jerk, just took on the assignment so he could hook up with an old girlfriend in the not-as-interesting-but-still-fine subplot.

Sure, it’s predictable that Plaza will come out of her shell and fall for Duplass, but the snappy script and tuned-in tone make this an endearing film that never tries to be too hip or self consciously pop culture savvy, despite having a few STAR WARS references in it. It can’t help but have some rom com story beats, but its naturalistic rhythms subvert them. That’s very impressive, considering the plot hinging on whether or not some odd guy can actually time travel.

Less successful in its rom com subversion, is Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s RUBY SPARKS, now playing at the Colony Theater  in North Raleigh. 

Its surreal premise is simple: a young writer (Paul Dano) writes about his dream girl (literally from his dreams) and she comes to life in the form of the energetic red-headed Zoe Kazan (who wrote the screenplay).

If Dano writes that she speaks French - she speaks French, if he writes that she can’t live without him - she freaks out if he lets go of her hand, and so on. “You can make her do anything you want…for men everywhere - tell me you’re not gonna let that go to waste” Dano’s brother (Chris Messina, another indie actor who gets around a bit) implores of him.

Dano’s attempts to control her always backfire, which, of course, is the point, but RUBY SPARKS is maybe half of a good movie. A sleazy Steve Coogan as Dano’s agent bit seems like a conventional concession, and the film’s conclusion spastically beats its message into the ground - or Dano’s apartment floor as Kazan frantically jumps up and down yelling that he’s a genius, because that’s what he’s typing her to do. Okay, we get it.

It’s sort of ADAPTATION meets (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, but it’s not fleshed out enough to really hit its marks. Still, the attempt to comment on the egos and expectations in a relationship as well as rom com tropes (though I’m not sure it’s really the refutation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal that the A.V. Club claims) does yields some satisfaction, and it’s nice to see apt cameos by Anne Benning, and Elliot Gould.

It’s worth noting that one of the only movies close to a conventional commercial rom com this summer is David Frankel’s HOPE SPRINGS, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as an old married couple trying to get their groove back. That’s a nice little film that doesn’t need any sci-fi gimmickry or supernatural shenanigans in order to charm.

But if the idea of seeing A-list geezers getting it on puts you off, and you’re willing to give a surreal anti-rom com made by indie kids a try, go with SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED - it certainly has the edge because nobody would ever call Aubrey Plaza a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Not if they know what’s good for them.

More later...

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