Redemptive Love Overcomes
Classic romanticism or just another love story? “Stuck in Love” tells the story of a broken family and their search of wholeness through romantic relationships. Directed by up and coming writer/director, Josh Boone (his next film “The Fault in Our Stars” to be released 6/6/14), “Stuck in Love” is a sincere treatment of difficult themes, divorce, coming of age, sex, fidelity, and meaning.
The film features a stellar ensemble of respected thespians, Academy award nominee Greg Kinnear, award winner Jennifer Connelly, Kristen Bell, young stars Nat Wolff, Lily Collins, Logan Lerman, and Liana Liberato, including a voice-cameo by Stephen King. Overall, the acting was superb. Very little was wrong with the cinematography. The soundtrack purred beautifully and fittingly throughout the film. There is not much to dislike in this film.
As a story, the film revolves around three main characters, divorcee and novelist Bill Borgens, his recently published, yet afflicted daughter, Sam, and smitten poet son, Rusty. Three writers with three different problems with love stemming from Bill’s divorce from his wife Erica.
Bill initially appears as the title character, since he seemingly is stuck in love with his ex-wife. Rusty, as Boone reveals in interviews, “is very much an alter-ego. He’s a more handsome, cooler alter-ego, but he was very much playing me [Boone]. I just tried to take things that I wanted to talk about, from my life when I was younger, and just hang them on that family of writers to see if I could tell that story.” While Rusty’s escapades with his girlfriend Kate figure prominently, their story fades into the background. As a character, Rusty changes very little (other than losing his virginity about halfway through). Even Bill’s character progresses only mildly.
Bill struggles to let go of his ex-wife, and the viewer discovers halfway through that he does not struggle with letting go but actually with remaining redemptively faithful to a promise his made his wife years before. As we come to find out, Erica remained faithful towards him when years before Bill had lost his way. The adulteress character Tricia tempts Bill to let go of Erica, but he continues to see his ex-wife struggling to live with her faulty decision, so he decides to hold on to hope.
Bill’s deliberations and Rusty’s romanticism and coming of age form the backstory for the development of Sam as a character. Of all the characters, Sam changes the most, transforming from a cold, sex-only-please, user of men into a forgiving, soft, understanding character. Whereas she hated her mother for emotionally and professionally harming her father, seeing her father as hopelessly broken by a ruthless violator, she later learned that her father’s dedication to Erica was not senseless desperation, but a loving, humble response to a long-past act of forgiveness. Through this revelation, Sam finds healing with herself, with her mother, and with boyfriend. This was the defining moment of the plot. Rusty’s dedication to the broken Kate was sentimental, as was Erica’s return to the family, but these were like extra gravy at the thanksgiving meal. Perhaps this is why some reviewers of the film thought the ending was too tidy, others thinking the characters were not fully developed. Developing three characters, all whose decisions and views on love feed into a central plot is a gargantuan task.
One of the more memorable lines from the film comes from Bill. Twice, including the closing scene, Bill quotes Raymond Carver—“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” As we find out, this is Bill’s favorite author, favorite quote. How much are we to read this quote into the movie, one wonders? In Carver’s short story, two couples, all four persons previously divorced, lose their inhibitions over a bottle of gin and discuss the love they have truly felt towards each of their past lovers. From this short story, life, it seems, comes to us in a progression of good or bad experiences of human love. But love is just that, an experience of a feeling, nothing more, nothing less, a sort of romanticist nihilism. Perhaps Boone chose this quote because of how it sounded in the movie. It is unclear how it related to the plot, being as Bill’s love for his ex-wife was driven by something deeper, something Rusty held onto romantically, and something Sam began to understand. Or perhaps its an ironic, cryptic critique of the romantic love presented in the movie itself.
Given the redemptive transformation of Sam’s character, on the whole, the movie overemphasizes sex. Certainly love is more than sex, marriage is more than sex, coming-of-age is more than sex. The sexcapades of Sam’s character fit into her transformation. They communicate how far her parent’s divorce have driven her away from relational love, no skin required to demonstrate her issues. However, Bill and Rusty’s forays were clearly extraneous to the plot. Who cares if Bill is getting it, for instance? Artistically, while there is no full exposure during any of the sex scenes, there were too many such scenes, most distracting from the plot, and they were all too explicit verbally. The best art implies and nuances, thus making its communication stronger. Made explicit, even without exposure, the scenes are mere titillation, unnecessary. The concern here is not prudishness, but aesthetics and truth.
What then does “Stuck in Love” teach the viewer about love? One might argue that all we find here is a story, nothing more, nothing less. However, every story, especially those having plot, climax, and resolution, functions heuristically. The manner in which every human being views the world derives from foundational stories, root metaphors, worldviews. This is one reason why this movie should be taken seriously, because it takes stories seriously.
This story in particular moves beyond naked realism, which is often purely meaningless, toward romantic idealism. Whether you agree with the Boone’s argument about love, you have to work through how he portrays love in the real world. Obviously he rejects the heartless, godless love of Sam early in the movie. She is a lost soul. He also rejects the heartlessness of Erica’s abandonment of Bill. He doesn’t fully embrace the romanticism of Rusty, Rusty is still portrayed as immature and finding himself. Bill’s redemptive love figures prominently, again, not in that it leads to his restoration with his ex-wife in the end, but that it leads to the transformation of his daughter Sam. She learns that love is a promise that is kept even in light of the messiness of the whole endeavor. She learns that no one loves perfectly and that it is worth the risk of being hurt. Love is primarily about redemption, forgiveness, faithfulness, and dedication, even in the face of great pain. Aspects of the plot distract from this view of love, but this view remains nonetheless.
Could we trace this view of love back to Boone’s Christian roots? He may not consider himself a Christian now, but traces of the Christian worldview may indeed persist in his dedication to the ideal of faithful, redemptive love.
In short, Christianity, when true to its roots, teaches that God, eternally existing, who in essence is love, created humanity to be able to love Him and to love other people. God created humanity with the ability to choose, originally reflecting His goodness and His love. However, human beings of their own free will chose to love themselves and other created things above their creator. Since this turning-in-upon-oneself, and every human being has been born with brokenness. This brokenness is reflected in human relationships as in everything humans put their minds and hearts to.
Sometimes, we still taste the goodness of God’s creational purpose in love, but often self-love, seeking one’s own pleasure and happiness at the expense of others, destroys human relationships. Not only is this relational evil individual, it is also systemic. We devour one another. Few find what is true, beautiful, and good, as they endeavor to love other human beings.
Nonetheless, God did not leave humanity to its own devices. God showed His redemptive love by crushing His own Son Jesus upon the cross to reconcile and redeem us from our brokeness. He did this because as the creator, He holds the right and authority to judge His creation for its rebellious self-love against Him. Instead of obliterating His creation, He placed the judgment for human rebellion upon His son, who valued us all above Himself. He demonstrated such love for each of us. This love is made perfect through the restoration of all things through His Son, Jesus.
Christianity teaches that Jesus physically died within human history, and was physically brought back to life from the dead (three days later no less). In Jesus, human love is restored through redemption.
Whereas humanity was not faithful towards God, God has remained faithful towards humanity. All God requires is that we, as the wayward spouse, return to his table, turning away from our adulterous abandonment, and put our full-life allegiance in His Son Jesus. This is a grand love story, from which all other love stories get their effect, power, and meaning. Insomuch as love looks like this, it reflects that which is True, Good, and Beautiful.
Reviewed by Wesley L. Handy
 Christina Radish, “Writer-Director Josh Boone Talks STUCK IN LOVE, Its Autobiographical Nature, Getting Stephen King Involved, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, and More,” Collider.com, [Accessed 10/28/2013] http://collider.com/josh-boone-stuck-in-love-interview/
 Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories,” (New York: Vintage, 1989), 154.