Review

Ruby Sparks Romance

Ruby Sparks is the story of an agoraphobic writer who peaked too soon, and finds new inspiration when he writes (types) his dream girl into life. Literally.

Calvin (Paul Dano) wrote a novel to rival Catcher in the Rye when he was a teenager. Ten years later, his only friends are his brother and sister-in-law and his pet dog, Scotty. And he is creatively blocked to the point that he is seeing a therapist (Elliott Gould).

In his sessions with his therapist, Calvin reveals that he has a recurring dream about a cute, red-headed girl named Ruby Sparks. His therapist recommends writing about her to see if it will unblock him. Calvin complies, at first reluctantly, but then in torrents of creative energy (sparks).

One morning he comes down the stairs of his apartment to discover Ruby cooking him breakfast. At first, he believes he’s just hallucinating her, but soon he discovers that other people can also see her, and she is indeed real. In fact, not only is she real, but he can control some of her actions, and even her underlying personality by typing new pages about her.

Sounds like every man’s dream come true, right? Not exactly. Calvin soon discovers that the power to control another human being, particularly his soulmate, is a Russian nesting doll of Catch-22s. Trying to make her happy makes her manic, trying to make her exclusively his makes her clingy. His every attempt to improve her destroys a little bit more of what drew him to her in the first place.

In this aspect, the movie is reminiscent of one of my favorite short stories: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” in which removing the “blemishes” of the beloved only serves to dissolve her.

You might be thinking at this point, haven’t we heard this story again and again ad nauseum? It’s the old Pygmalion project rearing it’s wizened head again, right? Ruby Sparks is just a Galatea or Eliza Doolittle for a new generation, right? Can’t we just say don’t try to change the people you love, and be done with it?

Fortunately, Ruby Sparks adds a new wrinkle: a female screenwriter. Zoe Kazan—in a case of life imitating art—wrote the script, and plays the title character, staring alongside her actual boyfriend, Paul Dano. Ruby is not some caricature of a woman with her inhibitions removed. She is a fully-realized woman written by a woman. She is disturbed by the strange power Calvin seems to wield over her. She scolds him when he shuns his mom’s boyfriend’s good-natured efforts to make nice with him. She feels smothered. She makes friends and has a life outside of Calvin’s apartment.

Furthermore, the movie is directed by the husband and wife team that brought us Little Miss Sunshine. This is no mere speculative exercise. This is couples therapy. I can only imagine the actual arguments and tender moments of the respective couples that inspired scenes from the movie. There seems to be an honest wrestling with the complexity of love between the sexes.

Just as Little Miss Sunshine was less a story about a little girl’s beauty pageant and more about the deeper bonds that overcome the dysfunctions of family life, Ruby Sparks is less a morality tale about a lover’s quest for the perfect mate, and more about a writer learning to live outside the pages of his typewriter.

Calvin has become so self-absorbed he has shut out the people who care about him. Ruby is just another one of the many characters who populate his life. He interacts with his friends, family, publicist, and ex-girlfriend only on his terms. When they are not serving his purposes they are forgotten, only to be remembered when he needs them again. Given an unprecedented amount of control over the life of another, he begins to realize how selfish he has become.

In a pivotal scene, Calvin forces Ruby to tell him he is a genius over and over again until she’s exhausted. This is significant because up until this point he has contradicted anyone who has called him a genius. But as he watches Ruby worship him, the deception of his false modesty slowly crumbles, and he sees the ugliness within. Will he take the opportunity to change, and begin to free the people in his life to be who they are, or will he descend deeper into his growing isolation?

Ruby Sparks expertly balances such heavy scenes of soul-searching with an undercurrent of refreshing levity. The color palette is bright and cheerful, and the score by Nick Urata is both whimsical and sublime. Strings and trumpets and bombastic timpanis soar to the idealistic heights of infatuation and explore the quiet moments of sated love that simply enjoys the silent presence a lover. Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano successfully translate their off-screen chemistry to the movie.

Ruby Sparks isn’t perfect—the plot feels a bit linear, some of the narration can give it a 500 Days of Summer style heavy-handedness, and several of the minor characters are a bit flat and unrealized—but then again, love rarely is.

Note: This movie is rated “R” for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use. 

(photocredit)

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Inception

My New Favorite Movie

In the couple months since I saw Inception three times in the span of two weeks, I’ve been unable to get it out of my mind.

What an incredible movie! It’s gotten to the point that I discuss it as a matter of course with just about anybody who might care and a lot of people who don’t care at all.

I think what makes it so irresistable to me is the idea of dream versus reality and how one tells the difference between the two. Without giving too much away, the movie is all about the concept that someone can plant ideas in another person’s mind while they are asleep. Basically, the person performing inception must share a dream with the subject, and become the architect of the subject’s dream. In the process of perfecting this technique, one of the main characters appears to lose the ability to distinguish the real world from the dream world, and that is where the movie finds much of its intrigue and its emotional core.

This is an idea that really excites me, and it has proven to be really fertile imaginative ground for me. Lately, I’ve been on a philosophy kick for the sake of my own faith and for the sake of the philosophy discussion group I have joined with another man from my church at College of DuPage. I’ve read deeply and done much thinking on my own. I just finished a review of a book by Peter Hitchens (The Rage Against God) about how societies draw their morality from God, written in response to the new wave of atheists who are vocally anti-God.

So much of our lives hinge on being able to distinguish what is real and true from what is imaginary and false. And so often we are hopelessly blind. Often times we actively suppress the truth (Romans 1) and other times, we quite innocently build our houses on sand that spills out from under the foundations we’ve built.

Inception gave me an incredibly entertaining look into my own mind and its ability to fool itself. Another book I picked up recently called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell was all about the premise that perhaps our subconscious is actually better at making some kinds of decisions than our conscious mind is.

I am naturally an emotional guy, but that impulse has not served me well in the past, so I have very meticulously striven to rein in my emotions with a hardy dose of reason. I’m starting to believe that emotions have their place in discovering truth. Logic only goes so far before it runs into the barrier of the numinous, mystical, or miraculous. How do humans seem to be able to think about thinking with an organ called the brain that somehow doesn’t fully explain the mind?

In the end, truth is relational.

Wicked Book End

It’s fitting that I’m picking this blog back up right where I left it…in Oz. That’s right, I finally saw Wicked. And what an amazing show it is! It was brilliantly cast, had a beautifully designed set, the music was unforgetable and haunting, and the script does everything that Gregory Maguire failed to do in his novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West upon which the play is loosely based. Namely, it makes you care about the politics and spirit of Oz and empathize with Elphba, the wicked witch of the west as she comes of age and is ostracized from her friends and family.

For those not familiar with the plot, Wicked follows Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west and Glinda, the good witch, detailing their journey through Shiz, Oz’s University and exploring the question, what makes an evil person evil? Along the way, the viewer is provided with a revisionist history of the story presented in L. Frank Baum’s beloved children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In this telling of the story, things are not as clear cut. The “wicked witch” becomes so only after every honorable attempt she makes to bring restoration to those around her backfires and she is left with the sorrowful realization that “no good deed goes unpunished”. Often her attempts to help those around her only hurt them worse.

Glinda, on the other hand, is self-centered and superficial. The prom queen and primadonna of Oz who in a twist of fate is made to room with the social outcast, Elphaba. She is blissfully ignorant of how her actions affect others and has a feeling of entitlement. That is…until she begins to see Elphaba for whom she really is.

I don’t want to go any deeper than this so that I don’t spoil the plot for you, but suffice it to say, I recommend this show without reservation. It was everything I hoped it would be and lived up not only to the hype surrounding it, but also my two years of anticipation as I waited for an opportunity to see it.

I was struck once again, as I watched the show, with the role that choice plays in our lives. You’ll remember, I discussed this very same thing in my previous post from last April. It seems to have been this past year’s theme, because it came out again in July when I saw the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight movie. I think what made the Joker so frightening in that movie was the same thing that made Anton Chigurh, the villian from No Country for Old Men the same: chaos. There was a sense that the human will to make logical choices was absent in these men. Both seemed to base their decisions on nothing but the feeling of the instant. I got the sense that either one of them could have been inspired to murder by a feeling of indigestion from a bad burrito. Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight is such a tragic character mainly because he allows his emotions to control the choices he makes and he thus becomes a villian of passion.

Elphaba, alternatively, makes choices based on noble intentions. She strives to make things right…but there is a sense that whatever her intentions, her choices betray her. We are at our lowest point when we decide that our choices don’t matter. Whether this makes us choose flippantly or give up on our ability to choose, either way we have lost. I have a Christian friend who is losing her will to choose and thus drifting into agnosticism. I hear the chilling surrender in her voice. How can we know (enough to make a choice)? I try to reason with her, but reason has lost its convincing power in the weight of the impotence to know that envelopes her. The world is becoming impersonal for her and her choices are losing the eternal weight they once carried.

This is what makes Elphaba such a convincing, sympathetic character to me. Her noble choices backfire, yet she continues to strive, believing that the next one will succeed. She is doing the right thing and she knows it. Perhaps she will be vindicated in the end, perhaps not, but the point is she still has the courage to choose to do right whether or not others understand her. Yes…the Wicked Witch of the West has integrity! How’s that for a plot twist?