Movie Miracle: 'Lars' Is a Smart, Tender Comedy
Ryan Gosling Shines In the Oddball Love Tale
Wall Street Journal, October 12 2007
When a movie turns out well, the achievement may border on the miraculous; such are the forces arrayed against filmmakers who want to work as unfettered artists. But "Lars and the Real Girl" crosses the border. It's nothing less than a miracle that the director, Craig Gillespie, and the writer, Nancy Oliver, have been able to make such an endearing, intelligent and tender comedy from a premise that, in other hands, might sustain a five-minute sketch on TV.
The premise is straightforward: A likable but withdrawn young man named Lars Lindstrom (played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling) buys a life-size sex doll on the Internet and falls in love with it. Or, rather, with her, since he endows his silicone beauty with a vivid personality. Her name is Bianca, she's a missionary from a Brazilian-Danish family and she doesn't believe in pre-marital sex, so their relationship will be chaste at the outset.
We're glad to go along with the gag, and we're not the only ones. Lars's sister-in-law, then his brother, then the people of his midwestern town -- somewhere up north, maybe in Minnesota -- go along with it too, albeit cautiously at first. That's the wonder of this story, which moves from the cheerfully ludicrous to the quietly momentous. People go along with it, and are changed by it, as they realize that Lars is not a hopeless nut job but a good soul in distress. Delightful as the business about Bianca may be, it's only a catalyst for the community's effort to help heal one of its own. Of all the unfashionable things in our crass day and age, "Lars and the Real Girl" is a movie about kindness.
It is also, on its own modest terms, an almost perfect movie with flawless performances. Ryan Gosling has done extraordinary work before -- most notably in "The Believer" and "Half Nelson" -- but the comic sensibility he unleashes here still comes as a surprise. The leash is short, and taut. You can't even call what he does deadpan, for that would suggest some hint of self-comment. His Lars is simply rooted in every moment, though that doesn't quite get at the actor's art either. There's nothing simple about Lars's fantasy life with Bianca, or his response to being touched by a therapist, physically and emotionally, in one of the best therapy sequences you've ever seen. Just as that life with Bianca grows out of need, as the therapist explains to his family (with hardly a syllable of psychobabble), Mr. Gosling's portrayal grows out of judgment-free revelation; he lets us in on the safe, sweet pleasure Lars takes from his ostensibly inanimate inamorata.
Every other performance in the film is of a piece -- not a false note to be seen or heard. Paul Schneider, as Lars's older brother, Gus, fulfills the promise he first showed in David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls." (Will his next movie have a "real girl" title, too?) While Gus has managed, barely, to escape his family's dire destiny, his emotional range remains constrained. Within that range, though, Mr. Schneider rings witty changes on his character's obtuseness, his skepticism -- Gus is our surrogate in all of this goofiness -- his verbal contortions, buried guilt and essential decency.
Gus's wife, Karin, played with exquisite ardor by Emily Mortimer, is much easier to decode. Pregnant and immensely pleased about it, she's an earth-mother-to-be. Karin's first impulse is to open herself to the lives of others, so she leads the charge, after some brief hesitation, to embrace Bianca as a palpable creature of Lars's inner life. Kelli Garner's Margo is a smaller role -- the ingénue who must compete with Bianca for Lars's affection -- but Ms. Garner fills it with an unaffected sweetness that recalls the early films of Shelley Duvall.
Then there's the divine Patricia Clarkson -- droll, dry and precise, yet mysteriously intense -- as Dagmar, the town's physician, who is also a psychologist. An actor's actor, Ms. Clarkson possesses, among so many other gifts, a peerless talent for listening, which is perfect for Dagmar's sessions with Lars. One of the movie's most delicious lines is also the most understated. It comes after Dagmar first meets Bianca and listens to Lars extolling her virtues, "He appears," the psychologist says, "to have a delusion."
Remarkably, Nancy Oliver's original script for "Lars and the Real Girl" is her feature debut; some writers spend whole careers learning to write as concisely and evocatively -- and hilariously -- as she's done the first time out. Though other films have turned on romance between a guy and a literal doll, this one turns the notion into a classic comic parable with stirring scenes: Karin replying with furious hurt to Lars's accusation that people don't care about him; Gus answering Lars's question about how and when someone becomes a man; a pastor's heartfelt eulogy for a much loved member of the congregation.
I've held off on discussing the director, Craig Gillespie, only because the results of his work in this film are so impressive that they deserve to be appreciated fully, in the context of his cast and crew. But that's easier said than done. When I was starting out as a young critic, I would read other critics asserting, with great authority, that the direction in this film or that was good or bad, and I'd wonder, with great anxiety, "How do they know, since direction is intangible? How can you tell what a director does, let alone pass judgment on it?" The answer, of course, is you can never tell, exactly, but the director always leaves his mark, for better or worse, in the movie's tone, and in an accumulation of details and choices.
In this film it's for better at every turn. The tone is consistently delicate. One of the first details I noticed about the film's physical production was the paint on the front of the garage where Lars sleeps -- not insistently disreputable, to make a point about his sad status in the world, just peeling normally, plausibly. A nice choice, if a small one, grounded in reality, but was it made by the director, or by the production designer, Arv Greywal? No way to know. Still, it was consonant with other nice choices, small and large: Lars's grounded, laconic comment on Bianca's silence -- "She's shy. Everything's so new"; Adam Kimmel's clear-sighted cinematography, constantly showing without being showy; Tatiana S. Riegel's deft editing, which cuts quickly from, rather than lingers on, the whimsical spectacle of a child sitting on Bianca's lap in the doctor's waiting room; Karin's throwaway explanation of why Dr. Dagmar is also a psychologist -- "She says you have to be, this far north."
A common denominator of these choices is trust -- in the material, and in the audience's intelligence. Some may have been made by Craig Gillespie, others by his collaborators, including Ms. Oliver, but all of them were made within a stylistic climate that the director established and sustained. The climate is funny, breezy and warm.
DVD TIP: As I tried to recall another film with a comic tone as delicate as that of "Lars And the Real Girl," I got nowhere until I thought of Lars as the product of a Scandinavian family. Bingo. "Kitchen Stories" (2003), in Norwegian with English subtitles, starts in post-World War II Sweden, where time-and-motion scientists dispatch a researcher to rural Norway to study the kitchen routines of single men. It's an absurd premise, but this is an absurdist comedy par excellence. And, very much like "Lars," it ramifies into something more--a parable of friendship, devotion to duty and the basic human need for social intercourse.
Lars and the Real Girl
The movie centers a delightful, Capra-esque story around a most prurient prop
Los Angeles Times, Oct 12 2007
Lars and the Real Girl" is the darndest thing. Starring Ryan Gosling as the romantically challenged Lars, this is a film whose daring and delicate blend of apparent irreconcilables will sweep you off your feet if you're not careful.
For what screenwriter Nancy Oliver, director Craig Gillespie and a top cast have done is construct a Frank Capra-style fable, a throwback tribute to the joys of friendship and community, around a sex toy. Taking one of the most salacious items modern culture can provide as their centerpiece, they've created the sweetest, most innocent, most completely enjoyable film around.
What makes this implausible feat of sustained imagination possible is how exactly calibrated "Lars' " emotional effects are. The creators of this film were fiercely determined not to go so much as a millimeter over the line into sentiment, tawdriness or mockery. It's the rare film that is the best possible version of itself, but "Lars" fits that bill.
Credit goes first to Oliver, a "Six Feet Under" writer doing her initial feature script, who, having noticed that a lot of contemporary movies were "dark, edgy, sarcastic and sometimes mean-spirited," determined to do something different without sacrificing intelligence, wit or unexpectedness.
Filmmaker Gillespie, a top commercial creator who is the director of record on the completely dissimilar "Mr. Woodcock," understood this script in a way no one but the original writer usually does. His decision to shoot in the Canadian winter, substituting for the frigid upper Midwest of the script, helps give the film its deadpan, almost Scandinavian humor.
Gillespie has also ensured that the "Lars" performers are all on the same wavelength. First among equals is Gosling, who plays the sweet, guileless and very much removed Lars with unwavering, unblinking sincerity.
The always involving Emily Mortimer conveys generosity and intelligent sprightliness as Lars' sister-in-law Karin, Paul Schneider is very much the guy's guy as Lars' brother Gus, and Kelli Garner wins us over as Margo, Lars' awkward but sincere coworker who is more willing than most to get to know the young man.
That takes some doing, because what Lars does best is what he's doing as the film begins, which is hiding from the other people in his small town. In this case, he's hiding from the pregnant Karin, who lives with Gus in the family house while Lars by choice makes do with an apartment in the garage.
Karin simply wants him to come over for the occasional meal, but though Lars has the habits and disposition of a grown-up choir boy he is pathologically shy, terrified enough at even the thought of human contact to literally run when he sees it coming.
That doesn't stop Margo at work from trying to chat him up and other folks from trying to set him up. That pressure, combined with nervousness about Karin's pregnancy and a coworker who watches too much pornography, leads to the arrival at Lars' home of an enormous crate.
That evening, Lars knocks at Karin and Gus' door. "I have a visitor," he says, proud as can be. But when he produces his friend, she turns out to be not what anyone expected. "This is Bianca," he says, introducing a fully dressed, anatomically correct, life-size silicone doll. "She's not from here."
As Karin and Gus look on astonished, Lars explains that Bianca is a Brazilian/Danish missionary he met online who has to get around in a wheelchair and, because she is as religious as Lars, will have to sleep in the big house.
For Lars, who treats Bianca like an actual person and holds conversations only he can hear, is not thinking of sex. Bianca, it turns out, is the only kind of companion he can tolerate. As Dr. Dagmar, a convenient physician/psychologist (a terrific Patricia Clarkson) says, "Bianca's in town for a reason," and everyone who cares about Lars is going to have to deal with that.
It is the charming conceit of "Lars and the Real Girl" that the group includes not just Karin, Gus and Dr. Dagmar but almost everyone in this mythical hamlet, some of whom turn out to have inanimate objects of their own that they treasure. Because people genuinely like Lars, because they want the best for him, they take Bianca as seriously as he does, which leads to any number of strangely comic and surprisingly poignant situations.
And the truth is, Bianca is good for both Lars and the town. She contributes to changes in his personality, giving him the courage to be the best person he can be. And she makes the townspeople around her reconsider their own lives and begin to value what matters over what does not.
Though it was produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, "Lars and the Real Girl" is being distributed by MGM, complete with the studio's venerable roaring lion logo. It makes one wonder what Louis B. Mayer of MGM's wholesome golden era would think of his company being associated with a film bizarre enough to employ a "Bianca wrangler." If the idea itself didn't give him a heart attack, he would probably like it just fine. It's that kind of a film.
I can't wait!