The Queen of Versailles’ Jackie Siegel is blond and has breasts that would make you duck had the documentary been filmed in 3D. She’s a former Mrs. (not Miss) Florida who, at age 43, already feels compelled to get the kind of facial procedures that leave her skin peeling and forehead immobile. She wears skin-tight, boobtastic outfits meant for women half her age.
And yet, throughout Lauren Greenfield’s film, you don’t feel the urge to mock Jackie or regard her as a breathing Barbie. She’s a trophy wife, to be sure: Her husband is 74-year-old David Siegel, the “time-share king” whose business is so thoroughly booming at the start of the doc that the couple (and their eight kids) are building a house in Orlando that’s modeled on Versailles and will be the biggest residence in the U.S. (Because, Jackie says, “we’re bursting out of the seams” of their current mansion.) It will have 30 bathrooms. A bowling alley. An ice-skating rink. A freakin’ baseball field. When completed, the palace—it’s really hard to call it a home—will be 90,000 square feet.
While Greenfield’s keeping tabs on the Siegels, though, the house’s completion suddenly becomes an uncertainty. Turns out the recession hit the 1 percent, too, and David was forced to lay off thousands of employees, learn the dark side of mortgages and foreclosures, become aware of and irate over lights left on unnecessarily. He had to rein things in.
But back to Jackie, who’s the focus of the film. She may be a shopaholic (even when her sprees are limited to Walmart), but otherwise this doll ain’t no dolt. It’s been a while since Jackie put her computer engineering degree from Rochester Institute of Technology to use, but her intelligence is apparent and her down-to-earthness more appealing than any cleavage-revealing dress. Her blue-collar Binghamton, N.Y., roots didn’t dissipate when she married into such wealth: Jackie takes the family’s unexpected downsizing in stride, even saying that if they had to move into—gasp!—a regular ol’ four-bedroom house, she would make do. (She’d at least have an easier time managing such a place; when the couple fires most of their staff, their current home becomes a mess.) Even their kids don’t seem all that bratty, particularly the teenage niece Jackie adopted, who’d had a rough upbringing and says that while she’s gotten used to wealth, she doesn’t want to become spoiled.
Over the course of the film, though, David becomes more of a not-too-likable curmudgeon, clearly burdened by his financial stress. When Greenfield asks him if he gets strength from his marriage, he says no, because being married to Jackie is “like having another child.” Of course, no one knows what anyone’s marriage is truly like, but the statement still seems cruel and unfair. (It doesn’t help that earlier he told his interviewer, “A lot of people are better off for knowing me.”)
The Queen of Versailles may start off as a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of the incredibly wealthy (check out those cheesy portraits and gilded everything!), but it morphs into a look at how the haves react when they’re teetering toward becoming the have-nots. It’s fascinating, even if you can’t exactly sympathize—when one of Jackie’s childhood friends is about to lose her home, for instance, Jackie is still able to write her a check. And you may not care if their gigantic new house, which was on the market at the time of filming, ever gets completed or sold. What ultimately makes the film so intriguing is Jackie herself. Even when she has her limo driver stop for a big ol’ sack of McDonald’s, Mrs. Siegel makes a worthy queen.
Ruby Sparks Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
In Ruby Sparks, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl gets moody. Yes, it goes against everything that the archetype, on her paper-thin legs, stands for. If you’re not familiar with the term, think a cute, quirky, heartbreaking 20-something female version of the Magical Negro: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl comes into some poor schlub’s life and is adorably perfect. She loves him because the script says so. He, obviously, loves her. And their love transforms him, while she remains flawless, unchanged. She is, the theory goes, a creation of men.
Star and first-time scripter Zoe Kazan tries to turn the idea of the MPDG on its head, and she’s mostly successful. But at the beginning, Ruby (Kazan) is its very definition, springing from the dreams of blocked writer Calvin (Paul Dano) and onto his typewriter’s page—and then, one day, Ruby appears in his house, in the flesh. Calvin, a self-isolating, nerdy sort, is freaked. Ruby, who has no clue about her origins, doesn’t understand. She knows only that they’re a couple, and Calvin’s acting weird.
Kazan and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) could have kept their fantastical rom-com at the slapstick level, with Calvin continually astonished that Ruby exists—and a little frightened of her. (Dano, in his most endearing performance yet, is pretty funny as he crouches around Calvin’s white, spacious L.A. home, both spying on and hiding from his dream girl.) But Calvin and Ruby settle into a normal relationship, despite the excited proclamation of his brother (Chris Messina) once he realizes Calvin hasn’t gone insane: “You could make her do anything!”
And there’s where Ruby Sparks veers into something a bit more substantial than, say, (500) Days of Summer. Calvin initially refuses to “write” her anymore—literally, he can type, “Ruby speaks French,” and damned if she doesn’t flip her language switch—because he loves her as-is. But eventually, just as in a real relationship, things start to sour, and Calvin panics. Maybe he can change her just a little?
The film then leaves its twinkly love story behind to become more about issues such as codependence, control, and accepting people as they are instead of how you wish they were. Most of it is played for laughs (such as when Calvin programs Ruby to be, essentially, “clingy,” and she cries while sitting beside him, “I miss you right now!”), but there’s a dark and rather intense scene in which Ruby becomes his puppet, along with the usual heartbreak of a romance heading south. Kazan, not a typical beauty, is still luminescent and lovable here, and plays each of Ruby’s iterations with goofball precision. She and Dano are a couple in real life, a relationship that doesn’t always translate onscreen. But they’re darling together, even if you always feel a nagging pity for the MPDG throughout, no matter how independent the character gets. Ruby Sparks, unlike the cinematic idiom from which it springs, is a rare creature: a romantic comedy that’s smart and doesn’t nauseate.