'Ruby in Paradise' is a small and perfect jewel of moviemaking

MOVIES

November 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Ruby's idea of paradise may not be your idea of paradise but it does go to show that paradise, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Here's her idea: a little house. Nobody to tell her what to do. A job at which she can work hard and in which she can take some pride. And, most important, the freedom to reflect. "Ruby in Paradise," the award-winning film opening today at the Charles, watches as she fights her way toward just such bliss.

It is possibly Ruby's spirit of reflection that accounts for much of the charm of the film. Self-awareness is a value not much measured in American movies these or any other days but writer-director Victor Nunez's script understands the fundamental human hunger to know the self and how it can control the shape of a life. Thus Ruby is continually committing her thoughts to her diary in clear and lucid prose that doesn't feel at all contrived; what we feel is her mind, formally uneducated but brilliantly direct, locked in a struggle to peer beneath surfaces, her own and all others.

Ruby is played with serene wisdom and aplomb by Ashley Judd, of the famous country western Judd family, but if you didn't know that, you wouldn't guess it in a year of trying. In fact, if you knew an issue of parentage were involved, you'd think she was Meryl's daughter instead of Naomi's. It's one of the remarkable performances of the year in a truly remarkable film: muted, intelligent, intensely human, without an extra twitch of fretwork or self-indulgence. It's about as far from the gaudy, wondrously vulgar world of C-W as can be imagined.

The issue here is independence, female style (the subtext may be the actor's own independence from the culture of her family). We watch Ruby fleeing something in Tennessee -- an abusive husband, a drunken boyfriend, something; Nunez never makes it clear. She gets in her car and by the sheer pleasure of turning the key and stepping on the gas defines herself a new life.

That life is to be located in the Florida panhandle, called fondly the Redneck Riviera. Out of season, the place has the sad and peely look of a porch that needs repainting attached to a house owned by people who don't or won't or can't paint. The light that washes it is chilly and gray and there's a zing of cold weather in the air and the birds caw and seethe overhead and everywhere you look, the population is sparse and unsure. And . . . there's not much work to be had.

Ruby manages by the power of her very gravity to persuade the owner of a souvenir shop to hire her and enters the world of small-unit retail merchandising. It's part of the craftsmanship of the movie how exactly this world is captured, and how utterly without condescension and attitude. We are simply in an emporium where inventory control is the law of God and the law of survival, where nobody wants to be a tyrant but rules have to be observed. This, clearly, is Nunez's vision of the world, and he's very good at evoking its pleasures and even its rugged integrity. Yet he also understands that the irrational will interfere at odd moments.

For example, the no-nonsense owner (Allison Dean) gruffly tells Ruby that the one thing she is not to do is sleep with her son and the one thing Ruby does is sleep with her son. But Ruby can handle it; it's her life now. Soon she's involved with a now burnt-out environmental activist, but as decent as he is, she's ever careful to prevent him from taking over her life.

The drama in "Ruby in Paradise" is small and commonplace, very much the stuff of real life and not those ritualized fantasies we call "The Movies." But that's not the flaw, that's the point. It's a movie that quietly closes in on excellence.

"Ruby in Paradise"

Starring Ashley Judd

Directed by Victor Nunez

Released by October Films

Rated R

***

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