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Gut Reactions: Ruby Sparks (2012)

Ruby SparksDirectors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Writer: Zoe Kazan

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat

Plot: After an early success, writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has been stuck with writer’s block for years and has found failure after failure in his relationships with women. Upon the advice of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins writing about a girl he sees in a dream. After a few dreams, the girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in his home, miraculously brought to life. The two begin a romance that starts to crack when it becomes apparent that Ruby wants more of a life than the sequestered world Calvin has created for her, and in the end, Calvin finds himself in a struggle between love with the girl of his dream and trying to control that which he made.

Thoughts: Every so often those Netflix recommendations get it right. I’d never heard of this film, but when I read the description I figured I’d give it a try. I had no idea just how deeply it would hit me.

Admittedly, I may have a bit of an occupational bias when it comes to this movie. I may not be quite the success as a writer that Calvin Weir-Fields is (of course, as he reminds us during the film, he’s “no J.D. Salinger”), but I think any person who really pursues creative arts will be able to relate to this movie. The story hits upon a time in Calvin’s life when he’s struggling between crushing creative blockage and unbearable loneliness, something that’s all too real. And in fact, I can’t imagine there’s any writer out there who didn’t – at his weakest point – fantasize about doing exactly what he does in this movie. The idea of creating the perfect person, the perfect companion out of your imagination is tantalizing, powerful, and engaging.

SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-

Of course, this is just a fantasy, and like most fantasies it doesn’t really maintain if you hold it up to the light of reality. We all may have imagined being able to create the perfect girl, but a little critical thinking will reveal a thousand reasons this would be a bad idea. Zoe Kazan (who both played Ruby and wrote the screenplay) takes this idea and dissects it beautifully. Early on Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) points out the difference between this perfect, idealized girl and the realities of a functional adult relationship. When Ruby turns out to be more real and less idealized than Calvin thought, he begins to use his writing to manipulate her, which again backfires. His first effort makes her frighteningly clingy and needy, the next turns her into a bounding child. Even attempting to erase his mistakes bounces back on him, as he instead leaves her an emotional wreck.

The climax of the movie, I admit, is somewhat painful to watch. Frustrated and angry, Calvin reveals the truth of Ruby’s existence to her and “writes” her into performing a series of degrading, humiliating tasks (barking like a dog, for instance) to demonstrate his power over her. I cringed at each moment, watching him take someone he loved and turn her into a puppet. Each time he finished a sentence I found myself asking how he could do it, how he could possibly treat someone he loved in such a fashion, how anyone could be so frustrated that he’d do something that so utterly stains his own soul? Like the most painful things we see, though, it’s at its most horrible when we question what we would do in that same predicament. I don’t think I’d have it in me to do what Calvin does at the end, but it’s very easy to say that, knowing I’ll never have to face such a situation. In the heat of the moment, who can say what any of us are truly capable of? And if we ever did cross that line, would we ever be deserving of forgiveness, or capable of forgiving ourselves?

Although billed as a comedy, Ruby Sparks is definitely not cut from the standard romcom cloth that churns out so many practically identical movies a year. It’s not even the same as other “romantic dramadies.” For example, I recently watched Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, another romance from last year that treads the line between comedy and drama, including a dose of speculative fiction for the sake of the plot. In that one, Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley set out to find his lost high school sweetheart amidst the collapse of society that comes after final efforts to prevent an extinction-level asteroid from colliding with Earth fail. (Yes, this too is ostensibly a comedy.) While that movie wasn’t bad, in the end I found it sadly predictable. Ruby Sparks, on the other hand, isn’t predictable at all. Once Kazan deals with some of the more necessary tropes (showing how people react to this mysterious girl who’s appeared in Calvin’s life, a little interaction with his wacky family), the film is left in a sort of free roaming state where it could go absolutely anywhere. I never felt like I knew how the movie was going to end, which is probably the most exciting feeling I can imagine having during a movie. That open-endedness, that powerful, driving uncertainty finally brings us to an ending that’s ultimately sweet and hopeful, and a final line that couldn’t fit any better.

Again, this is a movie that struck me on a very personal level, which makes it difficult to say if I would recommend it to just anybody – I can’t honestly tell you if you would have the same visceral reaction that I did. But I can tell you that it’s well-written, well-acted, very emotional, and different from all the other cookie cutter movie romances in ways that satisfied me greatly.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 31: Misery (1990)

miseryDirector: Rob Reiner

Writer: William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Francis Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall

Plot: Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a novelist feeling weighed down by the success of a series of bodice-rippers featuring the character Misery Chastain. Celebrating a new work, unrelated to Misery, Paul is driving down a remote mountain road in a snowstorm and winds up crashing his car. A woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) finds and rescues him, telling him the phone lines are down and she’s been unable to go for help. She also happens to be a big fan of Misery Chastain. Paul’s legs are severely damaged and he’s unable to walk, but Annie – a nurse – is slowly nursing him back to health. Annie asks if she can read the new book he had in the car with him, to which he graciously agrees. After beginning the book, Annie finds herself uncomfortable with the swearing, and almost spills scalding soup on Paul.

Paul’s agent (Lauren Bacall) has called the local authorities about his disappearance, and the Sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife (Francis Sternhagen) begin a search. Annie comes in from town with Sheldon’s newly-released Misery’s Child and tells him she spoke to a doctor and his agent, and that an ambulance will be sent for him as soon as the road to the hospital is dug out of the snow. When Annie realizes that Misery dies at the end of the new book, she goes berserk and nearly bashes Paul’s head with a table. Instead, she smashes it against the wall and reveals she lied about calling for help – nobody knows where Paul Sheldon is. She later forces him to burn the only copy of his new novel as a sort of sick penance, then returns with paper and a typewriter, insisting Paul write his “masterpiece”: Misery’s Return. When he requests a different kind of paper – a ruse to make her leave the house – she smashes the box of paper down on his injured legs, but leaves. Alone, Paul explores the house in his wheelchair, finding an unnerving shrine to his work and Annie’s stash of medication. He steals some pills to go along with pills he’s been hiding in his mattress, but is almost caught sneaking around when she returns.

The Sheriff finds Paul’s smashed car, which has been buried under the now-melting snow, and the state police assume he has died, but the Sheriff realizes from the dents on the car door that someone pried him out of the wreck. Back at Annie’s, she forces Paul to start over Misery’s Return, claiming the way he brings her back is a cheat (something she feels particularly angry about, going on a wild tangent about how an old movie serial once cheated her in a similar way). He goes back to work, turning out page after page of Misery’s Return… and getting his hands on a knife. The night before he plans to strike, Annie drugs him and straps him to the bed, revealing she knows he’s been wandering the house and has found his knife. As punishment, she hobbles him, breaking his legs with a sledgehammer. A chance encounter with Annie leads the Sheriff to suspect her, and he comes out to her house; she drugs Paul and dumps him in the cellar. He wakes up and calls for help, and Annie kills the Sheriff. Strangely unaffected, she tells Paul she plans to kill him, then herself, but he manages to delay her by tempting her with the end of Misery’s Return. At the final moment, just before she can read the end of the book, he sets the manuscript on fire and attacks her with the heavy typewriter. The two grapple and, in a bloody standoff, Paul manages to kill her. Eighteen months later, we see him back in New York, with a new novel about to hit. His agent suggests he try a book about his ordeal with Annie, and Paul tries to shrug it off… but he’ll never be rid of her entirely.

Thoughts: This is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and, in fact, is also one of my favorite film adaptations of his work. (To this day I’m not sure if I love the movie because I love the novel or in spite of the fact.) Admittedly, the story hits home for me as a writer. The scene where Annie makes Paul burn his new book (to his way of thinking, the best thing he’s ever written) is more terrifying to me than any legion of slashers, zombies, madmen or monsters you can create. I did find myself screaming at the screen on occasion – “It’s the 1980s, Paul! To hell with superstition! You have the technology to make a copy!”

This is, again, one of those rare instances where the Academy Awards really got it right. Kathy Bates got an Oscar for this movie – to date the only major Oscar a Stephen King adaptation has won, although they’ve been nominated for a few more – and you can tell why from the earliest scenes. She goes from creepy to dangerous slowly, gradually, eventually becoming terrifying in the process. By the time she’s casually sloshing lighter fluid around the bed and insisting Paul burns his book, you’re really starting to fear her. The transformation is remarkable and subtle and really the work of a master thespian, and it’s made even more effective by keeping the core of the character consistent. Even at the very beginning, where she’s gently taking care of him, something about the character just seems off. As that odd “off” feeling slowly takes over her persona, the sort of naïve quality she has at the beginning is never entirely eliminated – no matter how furious she gets, she still speaks in an almost childlike manner, refusing to use profanity and sticking to homespun colloquialisms that you’d expect coming from somebody’s grandmother.

James Caan, meanwhile, plays off Bates perfectly. He comes across as someone who’s a little self-involved, a little narcissistic, and to a degree he can even see his time with Annie as a sort of punishment for that. Even before Annie truly starts to scare him, there’s a level of discomfort he displays that really goes far beyond that of a humble writer who doesn’t know how to deal with a gushing fan. As Annie grows more dangerous, the relationship between the two of them transforms from that of a nurse and patient to a pair of adversaries in a truly lethal chess game. Annie grows to see Paul as hers, as something that belongs to her, and he has to find unexpected wells of ingenuity to get out alive. Perhaps the bravest move Stephen King made in crafting the story, though, is that he never particularly tries to make Paul into a hero. Even by the end, there’s no real undercurrent of nobility to him. Sure, he’s the victim and you sympathize with him (it would be impossible not to sympathize after you see the incredible, impossible angle his foot goes in when she smacks it with that sledgehammer), and you even root for him in those last blood-soaked moments of revenge, but he’s still kind of a jerk.

To a large degree, this is a two-person show (and in fact, in the live action stage version that was produced, only Paul and Annie’s characters are ever seen on-stage). The subplot about the Sheriff’s search for Paul, while included in the book as well as the novel, isn’t really that essential – in fact, the way the Sheriff dies without really affecting the plot reminds me very much of Dick Halloran in The Shining – and it would have been fairly easy to lift the whole thing right out had the screenwriter so desired. But William Goldman is a better writer than that. (If you recognize his name, he’s also responsible for the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, one of my personal favorites, The Princess Bride.) Goldman knew just how to balance the two to prevent Annie from ever going so far that the audience couldn’t take it. In fact, in the original novel, Annie chops Paul’s legs off instead of just breaking them. In his 1995 book Four Screenplays, Goldman explains that he changed that scene because it would have been too much for the audience to take, that they would never be able to forgive Kathy Bates the Actress as opposed to Annie Wilkes the Character. And y’know, I do believe he was right.

The relationship between Paul and Annie echoes Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in a few key ways. Although Paul isn’t related to Annie and has no allegiance to her, he’s stuck in a wheelchair and cut off from the outside world, leaving himself totally dependent on her for his survival for as long as she remains sane enough to not slice him open like a fish and leave his guts in a steaming pile on the floor. King even picks up a little 1,001 Arabian Nights, with Paul playing Scheherazade, using the finale of Misery’s story to extend his own life.

Annie is a great villain, perhaps the best, most fully-realized one Stephen King has created. Although it strikes me that, for all her lunacy, I don’t know that I think Annie was completely crazy. Those old movie serials did cheat an awful lot.

Tomorrow we move forward in the 90s, as the man who changed horror twice before changes it again. It’s 1996, and Wes Craven brings us Scream.