Monday, October 15, 2007
Lars and the Real Girl
3 and half stars
I’m not going to lie: I went into this film with a major chip on my shoulder, pretty much convinced I was going to hate it.
For starters, I can’t stand the cutesy poster—you know the one—with Ryan Gosling sitting on a chair, a bouquet of yellow roses in his hands, and a derfy smile on his face. I have an aversion to films that sentimentalize simpletons (this is why you’ll never see Forrest Gump or Being There among my favorites) and when you consider that the story is about a disturbed misfit under the delusion that a sex doll is his human girlfriend (oy), I thought I was in for a movie that was precious or misogynistic—or both.
But damned if this thing doesn’t work. I can safely say that Lars and the Real Girl is the most improbable great film I’ve ever seen. Bottom line: I will never underestimate Ryan Gosling again. This kid is too interesting an actor—too smart in his choices—to make a truly bad film. (If you haven’t seen Half Nelson, do yourself a favor and see it.)
You see, Lars isn’t so much a simpleton as an agoraphobic—he uses the doll as a way to avoid contact with real human beings. (Of course, he never uses the doll as a sex toy—a safe choice on the filmmakers’ part, but not one I’m exactly sorry they made). And, heartbreakingly enough, Lars proves to be an incredibly great boyfriend to his doll—tender and respectful and doting. In his scenes with the wonderfully apt Patricia Clarkson—she’s the town doctor/psychiatrist who’s able to slowly tease out his true feelings— Lars reveals his overwhelming frustration with a mystifying human world.
The rest of the acting is equally splendid. Emily Mortimer is a revelation as Lars’s adoring sister-in-law: she appears vulnerable but is secretly as tough as they come. And Paul Schneider, who plays Lars’s baffled brother Gus, is having a career-making month (he’s the best thing in the turgid The Assassination of Jesse James)—his reaction shots are priceless. Also, look for the real girl of the title, newcomer Kelli Garner, who is so dorktastically adorable, she’d give Jim and Pam on The Office a run for their money.
But these performances would amount to squat if the actors weren’t working with a great script (by Nancy Oliver) and great direction (by Craig Gillespie). One of the genius conceits of this film is that Lars’s blow-up doll proves to be a useful therapeutic tool for the whole community, a kind of empty vessel into which the townsfolk can project their own hopes and needs.
In many ways, Lars and the Real Girl is exactly what I thought it would be (well except for the misogynist part): It is sentimental. It is precious. It does idealize our man-child hero. But it’s so dang smart—so droll and funny and filled with such wonderful, surprising insight that it’s impossible to resist. Hell, I may even have to buy the poster.