Ruby in Paradise
directed by Victor Nunez
(Say Yes Productions, 1993)

Ruby Lee Gissing's biggest accomplishment, she tells a coworker, is that she "got out of Manning without getting pregnant or beat up." We never do learn much more about Ruby's life in Manning, Tenn., other than what we see beneath the opening titles: A Plymouth Duster with a "See Rock City" bumper sticker tearing down a country road; a barefoot man running out of the house behind her in no mood to reason; a pair of shoes flying from the man's hands down the road after the car.

If Ruby in Paradise were a USA-Network TV movie, the husband would no doubt catch up with Ruby (Ashley Judd) after she'd found a new life with a promising job and an even more promising lover and make life difficult for her. But writer-director Victor Nunez is after something very different in Ruby, something sublime. And he gets it.

Ruby touches down in Panama City, Fla., a Gulf resort town about to shutter its windows 'til spring. There she all but begs a job at Chamber's Beach Emporium, where she survives an invasion of Canadians and the advances of her boss's sleazebag son, Ricky (Bentley Mitchum). But Ruby is less about the outer world than Ruby's inner world, revealed primarily in the diary she keeps in a spiral notebook.

Consequently, it's a pensive film, more a meditation on life in the '90s than a movie of the '90s. That puts it on dangerous ground. For without a riveting main character, Ruby in Paradise would fall flatter than the Florida panhandle it calls home. Fortunately, both Nunez and Judd are up to the challenge. Together they've created a low-key heroine who's thoughtful, resourceful, resilient and literate without being literary. When she voices over her inner thoughts -- things like "Ricky is 100 percent of something I would like to forget" -- she's fiercely convincing, always touching, often heart-wrenching. And Judd's soft, round face, and even softer rounder eyes, add a perfect touch of pathos.

It's hard not to root for Ruby, even when she makes the mistake of dating Ricky or goes on a shoplifting spree to vent her frustrations. Moreover, Nunez surrounds this superb character with the eerie stillness of an off-season shore town. Most days it's so quiet you can hear a pen write. And except for the strains of "Raised on Promises" that accompany's Ruby's opening flight, the musical score rarely rises above a piano and a flute.

By the end of Ruby in Paradise -- a title that's both literal and ironic -- it's not clear that Ruby has added much to her life's accomplishments, though she's certainly consolidated some hard-won gains. But there's little doubt Ruby has given us something few contemporary films would dare to offer: Jane Austen in blue jeans, with a incisive look at how merchandising can make merchandise of us all.

Action-packed it's not; rapid-fire, it's not. Thoughts and characters come and go, ebb and flow like the Gulf tides that surround them. For some, it may seem like a road to nowhere. But if you have the patience, Ruby in Paradise is definitely the way to go.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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