Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ruby Sparks -- change and control

Director: Jonathan DaytonValerie Faris, 2012 (R) 

How often do those of us in a relationship wish we could change the other person? Perhaps it is the quirky habit that seemed so cute when dating but now seems so irritating. Calvin (Paul Dano, There will be Blood) gets the chance to do just this, in the indie romantic comedy.

Calvin is a  young Californian novelist whose first novel, written while in his teens, was a huge bestseller. But he cannot come up with a second novel. He spends his days in front of his typewriter staring at the blank sheet, living on his past reputation, and dreaming of a girlfriend. He literally dreams of a girl called Ruby Sparks from Dayton, Ohio. But when she magically appears one day in his apartment, exactly as he envisaged her, he is confronted with his own creation.

It takes him a little while to believe she is real. But it is his brother Harry (Chris Messina) who tells him to rewrite his story, changing her in the lines on paper. When he does, she changes in “real-life”. And right then, Calvin realizes he has the power to change his girlfriend in any way he wants.

The film brings other characters in, although most don’t really add much to the plot. Elliot Gould has a few scenes as Calvin’s shrink, mostly to allow Calvin to verballuy process what he is going through. Annete Benning and Antonio Banderas play Calvin’s mom and step-dad, an earthy couple who have embraced the post-hippy organic lifestyle. But this is Zoe Kazan’s film as Ruby and it is her chemistry with Dano that makes this interesting.

In fact, it is Kazan’s film in more ways than one. She not only stars here, but she wrote the screenplay and produced the picture. Her diverse pedigree is unsurprising, since her grandfather Elia Kazan directed On the Waterfront, her mother Robin Swicord wrote the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and her father Nicholas Kazan wrote the screenplay for Fallen and Reversal of Fortune.

As the relationship between Calvin and Ruby develops, Calving falls into his old ways of withdrawing to be alone and reading. But Ruby wants more. She is now a real live, red-blooded woman, and she craves companionship and communication. She wants more from Calvin than he wants to give. And she has moods, which affect Calvin. So, he begins to rewrite her, changing her to what he wants regardless of what she desires. He acts like God, but in a selfish way. He seeks control.

Herein lie the key question at the heart of Ruby Sparks. Can we change or even control our partners? Moreover, what are the consequences of such attempts and how much free will is involved in the relationship?

Most of us come to relationships with an ideal in mind. For Calvin, it was Ruby. For us, it may be something entirely different. But our uniqueness makes us create a unique ideal, which no one can possibly fit or fulfill. But we somehow think our boyfriend or girlfriend, or our spouse, will be that person. When reality rocks that picture, we face one of two options: acceptance or control. If we try to control the relationship, we are actually trying to do what Calvin did: play God by changing our partner. This rarely works. Relationships are built on trust and respect, not control. If love is at the heart of the relationship, love finds a way to accept. As the Bible says, love “is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13: 5).

Even though in the magical realism of the film Calvin could actually change Ruby, in reality we cannot change another person. The only person we can really and truly change is ourself. And when we do change ourselves, we often find that we look upon our partners differently. We become more accepting and the things we wanted changed in them, no longer bother us as much.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs 

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