Ruby Sparks (movie review)

Five years ago the movie Ruby Sparks appeared briefly in theaters. Reading the newspaper reviews intrigued me and I wanted to view the movie, but it was gone again before I had a chance to see it. This summer, using birthday gift money, I was able to buy a DVD of the movie. It arrived in yesterday’s mail. I watched it last night, and I am pleased to report that it met and exceeded my expectations.

The central premise of the plot is that a novelist creates a character—the title character of the film—and then she suddenly becomes a real person. This story retells the Greek myth Pygmalion, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved and a goddess transforms the statue into a living woman. Of course this story has been retold many times in a variety of settings. Ruby Sparks does a better than average job of making the main characters believable, set in a twenty-first century California city.

Paul Dano plays the writer, Calvin, and Zoe Kazan plays the title character. (Kazan also wrote the script for the movie.) Brief appearances by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas add texture to the film. Calvin is approaching his thirtieth birthday, having written the Great American Novel while still a teenager. Like many prodigies, Calvin struggles to meet the high expectations triggered by his early success. Early in the movie he is shown in a counseling session in which his self-doubt and fear of failure are clearly revealed. A girl he first meets in two separate dreams, coupled with a suggestion by his counselor, ignites Calvin’s imagination and sends him into a writing frenzy, creating a romantic novel starring his dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

The character of Calvin is well established when the appearance of the real Ruby Sparks begins to be foreshadowed. Her sudden manifestation in his kitchen causes Calvin to doubt his sanity, a verdict in which his brother concurs. Two revelations follow: other people can see Ruby and interact with her, and Calvin can cause Ruby to speak fluent French by adding a sentence to his novel. Calvin soberly locks the text of the novel in a desk drawer, and then he and Ruby establish a beautiful romance.

Of course the magic relationship does not last forever. Ruby wants more excitement than Calvin’s reclusive life offers. She increases her independence until Calvin begins trying to manipulate her through his writing. His own emotional problems are magnified in her behavior, until an ugly and inevitable confrontation between author and character occurs, vividly depicted by Dano and Kazan.

The pace of the movie follows the inner life of the author. His emotional disorders are subtly portrayed in a variety of ways without becoming distracting or insulting. His eccentricities—such as using an obsolete typewriter for his work—are important to the story. Yet many of the reviews I have read this morning miss the point, treating the pace, the actor’s work, and the details—such as the typewriter—as flaws.

Ruby Sparks covers far more than emotional disorders. It delves into the relationship between artists and the products of their art. A creator wants to be in control, yet the creator must also allow the art to develop in its own way. Characters find their own voice, begin to make their own decisions, and even force changes in the plot of the work. I am sure that painters, sculptors, and composers of music can share similar stories of the ways their creations overpowered them and forced them to change the work they were doing.

That said, Ruby Sparks is not a flawless movie. The characters are foul-mouthed and have no respect for the marriage bed (although fornication is not depicted on-screen). The ending tries to be both charming and ambiguous and instead is unsatisfying. One cannot be certain whether Calvin has learned from his experiences or if he is doomed to repeat his mistakes again. Like many good movies, though, Ruby Sparks manages the little nuances which carry the story of the movie without relying solely on dialogue and action. It is more than a romantic comedy; it is a thoughtful approach to creativity and the loneliness of the artist. For that reason alone, I recommend it. J.

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Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?

Some Christians would say “no.” After all, the Bible tells God’s people not to be anxious. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:6). “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). If the Bible tells us not to be anxious, and Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then it appears that Jesus never worried and was never anxious about anything.

As I have written before, “don’t worry” is not the eleventh commandment. When God tells us not to worry, he is promising to take care of us. We can tell God about anything that worries us, and we can trust him to take care of our problems. Worry and anxiety can be powerful temptations to sin, but anxiety in itself is not sinful. It is part of what happens in this world, more to some people than to others.

Anxiety is like anger. Anger can cause people to sin, but anger itself is not a sin. Evil things in this world make God angry, and they should make us angry. At times Jesus was angry. He was angry that the teachers of God’s Word were misunderstanding the Word and teaching others to misunderstand the Word. He was angry that the Temple was being misused. Jesus never sinned, but he was tempted by anger. Instead, he used the energy of his anger to fix the problem that made him angry.

Was Jesus ever tempted by anxiety? Did he ever have a panic attack? Jesus knew that he was on his way to the cross, but he did not dwell on what was going to happen. He was able to take one day at a time, just as he teaches us to do. He says, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). He taught his followers to pray for “daily bread.” Taking one day at a time, Jesus was able to bear the coming torture of the cross, remarking on occasion, “My hour has not yet come.”

Finally, though, his hour came. Jesus had the Passover meal with his disciples and then went with them to a garden called Gethsemane. There he was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37) or “deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The Greek words used by Matthew and Mark are significant. The word for “sorrowful” is somewhat common in the New Testament and covers a range of sorrows. The word for “deeply distressed” is used only by Mark. In addition to the distress of Jesus in the garden, Mark also uses it to describe the surprise of a crowd when Jesus arrived unexpectedly, and again to describe the reaction of the women who found the tomb of Jesus empty. The word for “troubled” is used by Paul (Philippians 2:26) and is also translated “distressed.” It is a compound word suggesting “away from home,” or feeling badly out of place. Jesus, then, according to Matthew and Mark, was feeling a deep and powerful emotion of sorrow, trouble, and distress. He did not keep his feeling a secret, but told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).

Luke uses an even stronger word, “agony” (Luke 22:44). In fact, the Greek word chosen by Luke is the source of the English words agony and anguish. It refers to intense suffering, but only of an emotional nature, never to physical pain. Luke adds the detail that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In the garden, Jesus was tempted to leave his mission. He was tempted by sorrow, distress, and agony. Given the descriptions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus was suffering from an attack of anxiety, a genuine panic attack.

Other people in the Bible faced anxiety and depression. Elijah was depressed and wanted to die. The book of Job contains nearly a complete medical description of clinical depression. Paul in some of his letters expresses his melancholy feelings. Even Jesus, the sinless Son of God, dealt with powerful emotions of distress and agony.

Jesus prayed for help. He asked first if the mission could be changed, so he did not have to endure the cross. But Jesus also prayed the words he taught us to pray, “Your will be done.” Jesus was strengthened in his agony and was given the strength to complete his mission. Sinners are forgiven because Jesus resisted the temptation that came with distress and agony and continued to walk the path that leads to our salvation.

Jesus has not forgotten how he felt in the garden. When we pray about our feelings, he understands. He is able to help us, because he has faced every problem he allows us to endure. I find comfort in knowing that my Savior understands me so well, that he even knows how my anxiety feels.

J.