Three films that I've seen in the past month — "Celeste and Jesse Forever," "Ruby Sparks" and "Take This Waltz" — offer juicy roles for their female leads Rashida Jones, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams. Not coincidentally, two of the roles were written or co-written by the actresses themselves, while the third was penned by the talented Sarah Polley, Oscar-nominated in 2006 for adapting Julie Christie-starrer "Away From Her." All could draw loads of attention come February, particularly at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Each of the parts were charismatic, memorable — and in their own ways, perplexing.
Spoilers to follow ...
While Celeste's character is worth exploring, it becomes frustrating throughout the movie that the burden of self-improvement is almost entirely on her. Jesse, initially heartbroken and unemployed, stumbles into a new relationship and a resurrected art career without any effort at all. Celeste, on the other hand, is tortured throughout much of the movie and downright humiliated in parts, principally for the sin of addiction to standing up for what she believes in.
The message at the film's end is essentially "being loving is more important than being right." That’s obviously true to some extent, but the inadvertent subtext to that is "it's better to be lucky than to be good," and I'm not sure what kind of lesson that is. Being right does have its place. Though flawed herself, Celeste did have reason to ask more of Jesse in their relationship, yet the film doesn't give that much acknowledgment.
At the pic's end, when Celeste smothers her instincts to allow someone to cut in front of her line (a callback to an early scene in the movie), we're supposed to feel thrilled by her developing inner peace, but I don't know how you don't feel a little sad for her as well. (Honestly, McMurphy from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" comes to mind.) Knowing when to pick your battles is valuable, but between that scene and her journey to resume a relationship with Chris Messina's Paul that feels a little off — if not teetering toward surrender — you get the feeling that Celeste has gone too far to the docile side.
"Ruby" offers the creation of the beguiling title character as itself a creation by the film's protagonist, Calvin (Paul Dano), whose typed words literally bring Ruby to life. Our initial glimpses of Ruby were seductive on two levels — the backlit beauty in which she appears in Calvin's dreams, and then the edgy, original personality that he fantasizes meeting while he's walking his dog, parrying words with him as she wins him over. Maybe this Ruby isn't everyone's fantasy (certainly not that of Calvin's brother Harry, played by the everywhere-these-days Messina), but it's easy to understand why she's Calvin's.
But when Ruby arrives in Calvin's reality, she inexplicably has become more like Harry's dream girl than Calvin's — even as we are to understand that she materializes exactly the way Calvin, a celebrated teen novelist struggling to complete his follow-up work years later, has written her. The spark is there, but the independent edge that made Ruby so compelling in the dreams is completely drained out, leaving Ruby as a woman whose entire mission — whose entire sensibility — is to serve Calvin.
Why Calvin would reduce Ruby's character from the three-dimensional quality of his dreams into the two dimensions he apparently put on paper is a mystery that is ultimately explained, particularly by the powerful climactic scene of "Ruby" that shows what Calvin's true needs were. What at one point seemed like screenwriter Kazan selling actress Kazan short ends up being an stealth opportunity for the character to hit many, many different notes. I'm still not sure it all makes sense (even in the film's fantasy world) , nor am I entirely jazzed that the character rarely gets to be her own person, though it's understood that she is sacrificed to make a comment on the way men want to control their women. But it's a rewarding journey.
For a character who hits no false notes, "Take This Waltz" offers Williams' Margot. The soulsick Margot is affecting in ways that leave you sharing in her pain — with one caveat. While Margot is entirely believable, her origin story is absent. You never find out what made her the way she is. In one sense, that's not really the point, but with some insight into her past might have come an even deeper connection for the audience with her present.
I guess what I'm saying with this post is, as much as I enjoyed meeting Celeste, Ruby and Margot this summer, and as much as I think we should celebrate the opportunity to see them in such a small time, I wanted even more.
It's going to be interesting to see which of these resonate most with awards voters this winter. In the meantime, all three are drawing interest on the specialty circuit. "Celeste and Jesse" has the makings of a minor hit, grossing more than $25,000 per engagement in its opening weekend, while "Ruby Sparks" at the two-week point is nearing its first million bucks, a mark that "Take This Waltz" passed after about a month in theaters. (Personally, I ended up seeing the latter via DirecTV On Demand during its current theatrical run.)