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Ruby Can’t Fail II

August 24, 2012

Something else I thought of after I wrote about “Ruby Sparks” yesterday SPOILER ALERT GO BYE BYE NOW.

When you write the kind of movie where you can press the auto-redemption button at the end for your main character, it can’t be entirely “auto” if it’s to be believable. To get all Joseph Campbelly on the archetypes, the Cocky Asshole Who Learns Important Lessons About Life and Love and Becomes a Better Man has to be a certain type – if not loveable, at least more of a Fool than a Devil. He has to have some redeeming qualities which are brought to the fore after his less appealing, but never appalling, qualities are knocked about by The World and the Wheel of Fortune, generally with a little help from a feminine archetype. (Though movies written by men rarely give women the same narrative power as the man, so rather than a High Priestess or Justice, she’s more a minor arcana handmaiden, granted major arcana superpowers only in the moment where she withholds her love until he Becomes a Better Man, after which she gracefully cedes power and becomes his again.)

The problem with Paul Dano’s character is that he is not only never likeable, he’s actually quite hateable. We see him on the therapist’s couch – not a bad plot mover to get a solitary man expressing himself, but definitely a narcissistic encounter. We see him begrudging his fans the attention that to be honest their $9.99 or $13.49 (Kindle vs. Costco prices) have bought them. We see him using a girl who’s throwing herself at him as a tool to see if Ruby is real. We see him being a bastard to the ex-girlfriend who, until that moment, was “the bad guy” in their relationship. We see him visiting with his crazy but warm family, locked in the treehouse with a book rather than letting go even a little bit, or even pretending to be happy to be there.

And worst of all, we see him essentially beating Ruby with his typewriter. As he reveals to her the total control he has over her, he cruelly makes her bark like a dog, run into a “wall,” repeat the same thing over and over, like a puppet on a string. And that right there violates the basic principle of this kind of redemption story: when the character is revealed to have character disorder, you don’t want him to be happy – you want him to lose her. And moreover, character disorder isn’t fixable by Important Lessons. It’s why I cheer when Michael Vick gets sacked (the fact that I’m a Giants fan is gravy): “Now you know how the dog feels, asshole!” I shout triumphantly at the TV. Once a beater, always a beater. Yeah, at the end he “frees” her, but you get the sense it’s really more about him and how he wants to be thought of than out of any compassion for his character/lover.

Of course all this makes me reflect on my story. When I think about Caroline’s flaws, they’re that she doesn’t trust people, and that she intellectualizes her emotions, force-feeding them through the wrong side of the brain, which makes her a prime candidate for making Alex her primary relationship. She’s not a bad person, just a broken one. Her asset is that she knows Alex is an amalgam of people she’d actually like if she ever met them in a safe way, i.e. in encounters like the one with Nick where the abrasiveness of it made her forget her shyness, or the encounter with Alice where Alice makes the first move and prompts Caroline’s curiosity to judo-throw her shyness. And she’s smart enough to know that “commercial Alex” is bullshit, no substitute even for the original Alex, let alone a real person.

I think that’s why I keep putting off the bit I have to write next, because in effect it’s her “pull the plug” moment with Alex: her realization, maybe not right away but eventually, that Alex is gone, put to sleep, gone to live with the other Alexes on a farm far away. Whether or not Alex reappears, redeemed by ALF, I don’t know yet, but the important thing for Caroline is that she’s been postponing the grieving process, as if Alex was in a coma, not dead not undead. She really can’t move on from Alex to people until she accepts that her Alex is gone, which she hasn’t done yet.

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