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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Winter doldrums

Winter doldrums appear to have set in for me. The writing I want to do I do not do, and the writing I do not want to do isn’t getting done either. Several projects have stalled until I find the energy and inspiration to get them started again.

  • I want to write the second part of my post, “Your body is a temple of God.” I have many ideas of what I want to say, but they seem to be crowded together rather than lined up in an orderly fashion.
  • I want to finish copyediting my “Christ in Genesis” series and publish them together as one ebook (linked, of course, to the “free books from Salvageable” page of this blog). I have the text gathered into one document, but I cannot seem to make myself read it one more time for further improvements.
  • I want to do a “childhood memories” post to follow my four posts on sugar, detailing the first and longest addiction of my life with reflections on how we make addicts of our children.
  • I want to write a post about the so-called Synoptic Problem, a discussion of similarities and differences among the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (This is prompted, in mark, because during my daily devotions I have been reading Augustine’s “Harmony of the Four Gospels.”)
  • I want to comment again, in a curmudgeonly way, on the bad drivers I encounter on a regular basis.
  • I also want to comment in a curmudgeonly way on the way some people mistreat the opportunities entrusted to them to preserve the history of their families or organizations with photographs.

When I have trouble writing, the trouble is never caused by having nothing to say. I have too much to say, so much that my thoughts sometimes become stuck like a group of men in a comic movie trying to go through the same doorway at the same time. Even so, mood and attitude shape the way that I write, and so far this month my mood has been sour–not depressed or fearful, just sour–and my attitude has been motivationally challenged.

Other projects have also lagged. The house still needs a good post-Christmas cleaning. I’ve not practiced the guitar in ages. I need to organize my financial papers, discard those that are no longer relevant, and be ready to file my taxes once my W-2s have arrived.

I have managed to pursue one project that is out of the ordinary. Being a highly sensitive person, I thought I might be qualified to tune pianos. I got a book on the topic for Christmas one year, followed by the basic needed equipment the next Christmas. I toyed with the family piano, but a tuner can learn only so much from one piano. For that reason, I asked two congregations for permission to learn by tuning their neglected pianos. Even after receiving permission, I was hesitant to get started, thinking that in my inexperience, I might make things worse instead of better.

The last two Saturday afternoons, I have finally started working on one piano that was badly out of shape. Several keys did not work at all. When I took the panels off the piano, I found that several mechanical parts had fallen to the bottom of the piano. One hammer is broken and needs to be replaced, but I got the rest of the keys working. After that, it was time to start tuning.

Both Saturdays I have gotten about half-way through, only to discover that the tuning was not succeeding. Without being too technical, piano tuners rely on certain intervals (distances between musical notes) to tune a piano, while using other intervals to check their work. When I was about half-way done, I started checking my work and found mistakes that have to be corrected. I ended up stopping at that point–one can only listen to notes and intervals so long before losing sensitivity to pitch.

Possibly, the piano is drifting out of tune on its own, since it is in such bad shape. Another problem is that, as I become more tired, I sometimes turn the wrong peg–instead of correcting the string I want to correct, I’m putting a nearby string out of tune. With determination and perseverance, though, I will get this piano somewhat into tune and then move on to another piano.

Winter doldrums can be defeated. They can be attributed the need for rest after an active holiday season, to lack of sunshine, and to reduced exercise (with the weather a handy excuse). Even a brief walk outdoors on a sunny day, an occasional dose of Vitamin D, or a new hobby can provide mental energy and incentive.

And, while we’re in the neighborhood, what ideas and topics would you like me to address in future posts? J.