Trending: Women in Love [Relationships] Actually

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For years it has seemed a truth universally acknowledged that all single women must be in want of a husband. Centuries’ worth of stories dedicated to the female search for companionship often end once the relationship has been achieved. Everything after is smooth sailing, right? Maybe not. Lately, films have been slinking away from tradition to explore what it means to truly be in a relationship after the admittedly more cinematic “falling in love” bit.

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Over a year ago, I wrote about the backlash of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope (which can be read here) to which a lot of these films seem reactionary, specifically Ruby Sparks (2012) and the regrettably overlooked Her (2013). Both films turn the trope on its head by beginning in the way these MPDG fairytales often do: With a lonely, creative boy, buoyed by the idea of a girl. For in the end that’s all she turns out to be: an idea. The real thing is much more messy, so learns Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix)–although I do wonder why these lonely, creative boys have such odd, English novel-worthy names. In any case, both films place their male protagonists in the position of “creator”: Not only do they create for a living–they’re both writers–but they both “create” their own women…or at least they think they do before she spins alarmingly out of their control. 

So, let’s begin with Ruby Sparks, shall we?

Weir-Fields is a young wunderkind writer who hit gold with his first novel at just nineteen-years-old. Ten years later, he’s still grappling with writer’s block and regularly sees a therapist (Elliott Gould), presumably to alleviate his anxiety and whatever other psychological causes might be at play. At his therapist’s encouragement, Calvin begins writing a novel, without concern for how awful it might be, and soon finds himself creating his own dream girl Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film). Fascinated by her, Calvin writes more and more, much to the dismay of his older brother Harry (Chris Messina), who would prefer Calvin engage with a real woman instead.  Then, one day, by some unexplained magic, Ruby appears in his house and claims they’ve been dating for months. After the initial (and hilarious) fright fades, Calvin relaxes into a fun relationship with the free-spirited Ruby. But things cannot stay this way; if they did, perhaps love would never end. Unfortunately–at least for Calvin–Ruby doesn’t always want to be “in relation” to Calvin. Occasionally she wants to do her own thing and be, not just his, but her own. Calvin however possesses the power to form Ruby into whatever he wants her to be just by writing it on his typewriter. At first, he plays with this power lightly. Just writing “Ruby is fluent in French” sends the young woman downstairs spouting off complex, comfortable Gallic. But as the relationship and Ruby veers out of his control, he clings to this “gift” in darker ways.

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan filming Ruby Sparks (2012)

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan filming Ruby Sparks (2012)

Kazan’s writing is incredibly on point here, and I was surprised how much depth and truth I found in something so seemingly lighthearted. It’s interesting that Kazan and Dano are real-life partners, being directed by real-life partners Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, and this undoubtedly brought a ring of sincerity to the film. While not without its flaws, Ruby Sparks betrays  a truth we all must accept at one time or another if we are to enter healthy, successful relationships: A meaningful life must make room for people as they are, complicated, messy, sometimes even annoying, and free to be so. Simultaneously incorporating the magic (and limits) of storytelling, Ruby Sparks also considers the importance of seeing women as three-dimensional, beyond a a cute package of quirks. And that’s a rather novel concept, still today.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her (2013)

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in Her (2013)

This trend seems to be continuing with Spike Jonze’s recently released Her, about a lonely letter-composer (a job of the future apparently) who falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Twombly is a shy, quiet man when we first meet him, incredibly astute when it comes to observing people, but also, to an extent, crippled in his interactions with them. This all begins to change after installing his brand new O. S., who calls herself Samantha, formed with the collective personality of her programmers and given the very unique ability to develop with each new experience. Mind you, this seems set about thirty to forty years into the future, and it’s a rather scary thought when you really consider it: a computer, already boundlessly intelligent, given the very human ability to be ever-changing. Really, what would then distinguish technology from its users? But that’s not quite–or at least it’s not the only direction Jonze is going in here. Samantha, for all intents and purposes, is a girl with whom Theo falls in love.

“She’s so many things. I guess that’s what I love most about her: You know, she isn’t just one thing. She’s so much larger than that,” Theodore tells his friends, and it’s odd the way he says it as if he’s never met a complex woman before, although he has spent years married to his childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara), whom he is now divorcing. The surprise that someone can be so many things, can be undefinable, beyond completely knowing, is a revelation both refreshing and frightening for Theo. Samantha, on the other hand, completely loves this aspect of herself, and the tension enters where Theo tries to navigate his conflicting feelings about her existing beyond his discernment, both as a woman and as a piece of technology.

Sunday night, Spike Jonze deservedly won for his screenplay, which is nothing short of flawless, and is only strengthened by solid performances from Phoenix, Johansson, and Amy Adams, who plays Phoenix’s neighbor and college fling.

I’ll just finish with this: The French seem to be miles ahead of us in that they understand you can never truly know someone. You don’t know their thoughts or what’s going on in their heads. People are complicated and that’s what makes them exciting. So they’ve separated the expression into savoir–to know a fact or knowledge–and connaître–to be familiar. We can possess people in some sense–my wife, my husband, my girlfriend, etc.–but in so many more ways they’re completely beyond us. And it’s likely that realizing this as the best part of a relationship is the best way of coping with it. It’s just great that film is showing this through those traditionally most stifled characters: women.

The Wolf of American Hustle on Wall Street (2013)

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First of all, Happy New Year!

I figured I would talk about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell‘s American Hustle given they suffer from largely the same issues and seem to have been designed with similar intent. The emptiness of the “American Dream” is not fresh ground for the American storyteller, nor is it a theme of the past.  It continues to haunt, and I wonder if it wasn’t always an incubus disguised as hope.

Both films are based on true stories–Hustle far more loosely than Wolf–taking place nearly thirty to forty years ago, but no less relevant considering our society still rewards and honors wealth. It also serves as a pretty good excuse for defenders who argue films aren’t meant to be morality tales (true) and since society doesn’t condemn these kinds of people, it wouldn’t be “realistic” if they were condemned in art (less true and problematic).

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In Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time businessman who embezzles money on the side with the help of his lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).  They soon find themselves in the cross hairs of an ambitious and unstable FBI agent Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper), who uses them as a means to catch even bigger fish, like goodhearted mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and merciless mobster Victor Tellagio (a highly entertaining cameo by Robert DeNiro). To be completely frank, American Hustle is a sloppy, rambling mess with little else going for it besides solid, measured performances and occasional moments of levity. Bale, Adams, Cooper and Renner are all brilliant, especially given the uneven material they’ve been given, and I wouldn’t mind seeing one or two of them nominated in the coming months. But if someone is awarded, it will likely be Jennifer Lawrence, who, for some reason, seems to be garnering a lot more attention for a role she was too young to play and was really a caricature more than anything else. At any rate, the accolades this film has been receiving  is truly beyond me. If it’s true that Russell was going for some kind of character piece, he failed: because even though they all started off strong, a series of quirks does not a fully-realized, much less entertaining character make. Thirty minutes in, I found myself completely indifferent to the fates of these people. And once I’m no longer invested in who I’m watching, the story becomes meaningless. The running time is only a little over two hours–relatively short by today’s standards–but I couldn’t wait for the film to be over. It didn’t help that Russell employs the most blatant, aggressive use of the Male Gaze I’ve ever had the displeasure to witness. Gratuitous shots of Amy Adams’s ass and Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs did not make this any more enjoyable a watch. It certainly didn’t add anything of depth to the story. 

Sydney (Adams), Richie (Cooper), Carmine (Renner), Irving (Bale) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence) in American Hustle

Sydney (Adams), Richie (Cooper), Carmine (Renner), Irving (Bale) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence) in American Hustle

At least Hustle acknowledges that greed and deceit win you nothing without taking something precious in return. I suppose, in the name of “realism” Wolf of Wall Street feels no such obligation. Wolf  is a dramatization of Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio, clearly having fun at least) hedonistic pursuits starting in 1987 when the 22-year-old lands a job at an established Wall Street firm. His boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) takes the young and obviously talented Belfort under his wing and initiates him into a life of drug-fueled debauchery. Unfortunately, Jordan loses the job just as quickly as he earned it when the firm crashes following Black Monday. He ends up at a smaller, much less established brokerage, where he gains enough confidence to branch out on his own and start Stratton Oakmont comprised of a ragtag group of friends–including Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Robbie Feinberg (Brian Sacca), and Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi)–every bit as greedy and morally bankrupt as Jordan. They make big bucks charming and scamming first naive average Joes before graduating to the elite one percent. Soon Jordan and his friends are partying on yachts; enjoying orgies on private planes to Vegas; chucking little people at a target board; and practically every waking minute between these more extravagant events, tripping on coke or Qualuudes. All this excess, naturally, catches the attention of a FBI agent Patrick Denham (a sadly underused Kyle Chandler), and something resembling a plot finally begins to take shape, albeit in the third act.

Donnie (Hill) and Jordan (DiCaprio) meet for the firs time in The Wolf of Wall Street

Donnie (Hill) and Jordan (DiCaprio) meet for the firs time in The Wolf of Wall Street

Even if we decide to ignore all the allegations of misogyny behind the camera and count the misogyny before it as a product of Jordan’s own distorted view of women, the film is even more of a mess than American Hustle, and critics, in this instance, were not nearly as kind. For one thing, too much time is spent on Jordan and co.’s debauchery, where one or two sequences would have sufficed. Instead, we’re forced to dwell in it, and at a certain point it goes beyond simply vapid and hollow and repugnant; it becomes, worst of all, tiresome. A movie checking in at three hours does not have the luxury of becoming tiresome, not even for a minute. As it were, by the hour mark The Wolf loses most of what it had going for it; although it boasts entertaining performances from DiCaprio and Hill throughout. Any momentum it had fizzles early on, and we sort of drift along in an endless flow of generally dull, rarely even entertaining licentiousness, before, in the final half hour, rushing toward a conclusion that’s neither groundbreaking nor ultimately satisfying: Money rules everything around me.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,900 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.