Friday, April 25, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson
Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Ryan Gosling just might be the best actor we have who has yet to star in a truly great film. He came closest with The Believer. The Notebook was a decent chick flick. Half-Nelson was just plain overrated. Fracture was an unintentionally amusing genre picture. That disconnect between Gosling and the material he's given continues in a big way with Lars and the Real Girl. This is such a close call for me but I'm recommending it with hesitation. The movie sometimes treats the serious issue of mental illness as a joke but Gosling's performance, as a man who finds comfort in the arms of a plastic doll, doesn't. While the script has holes big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through, Gosling somehow finds a way to fill them in. I knew he was good, but I had no idea he was THIS good. It's probably the best performance of his career and it's made all the more impressive by the fact that he's saddled with problematic and occasionally cringe-inducing material that's searching for the right tone.

The movie is full of nervous laughs and we're never quite sure whether it's supposed to be taken seriously or not. The term "dramedy" has never been more appropriate and that's not necessarily a compliment. But because of Gosling's work and the dedicated support he gets from the other actors I was able to let go and not care. It seems to exist in a fantasy world where human interaction magically cures mental illness and everyone is tolerant and supportive of those who are different. It's a sad testament to just how dark and depressing the films of 2007 have been that I actually found myself relieved to see that. I was smiling throughout and happy I got to spend time with characters I actually liked. And that ended up being enough.

Everyone has days where they just want to be left alone. For Lars, every day is that day. After the death of his parents the introverted 27 year-old has become a recluse living in their garage while his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) occupy the main residence. Just getting him to come over for dinner proves to be a near impossible task for Karin, who senses there really might be something wrong with him. They're relieved, however, when Lars proudly announces he has a new girlfriend and asks if she can stay in the guest bedroom. This girlfriend is not Margo (Kelli Garner) a cute co-worker interested in Lars who he's afraid to talk to. It's Bianca, a life-size plastic doll Lars ordered from a perverted web site his friend was surfing at work. Under the guise of getting medical treatment for the wheelchair-bound Bianca, Gus and Karin trick Lars into seeing the family doctor, Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who just so happens to be a psychologist as well. Mercifully, Nancy Oliver's inexplicably Oscar nominated script stops short of also making her a practicing veterinarian, which always seems to be the case in these small middle America movie towns.

She diagnoses him as delusional and takes a Tom Cruise approach to psychology by suggesting that instead of committing him or putting him on medication it's better he just work through this himself. Only Lars can get rid of Bianca because he created her. Gus and Karin are told to go along with this and treat Bianca as if she's his actual girlfriend as we enter the most problematic territory of the film. After some brief initial shock, the entire town accepts Bianca as a member of the community and the script tries to mine giggles from an uncomfortable situation. We see Bianca at church. Children sitting on her lap. Wives taking her out for a night on the town. The ridiculousness reaches a fever pitch in the final act and it requires an unfathomable suspension of disbelief.

I think what the film was trying to do was show how Bianca acts as some kind of symbol for understanding that brings the town together and fills a void in their lives. It's a tough sell. Dagmar's reasoning is that if Lars were told Bianca isn't real he wouldn't believe it anyway and she's right. Gus, who Schneider wisely plays as a voice of reason rather than a villain, tries but fails. I'm not a clinical psychologist so I haven't a clue whether this is the right approach to take with someone with a delusional mental illness or how reality based this is but it sure does play weirdly when depicted on screen. Even though this is "just a movie" I couldn't help but feel it has a responsibility to present this problem and its treatment realistically since there's no doubt people like Lars really exist. It's a responsibility Oliver's script skirts around a little for entertainment purposes.

Lars must also contend for his growing feelings for Margo, who threatens to come between him and Bianca. His sessions with Dagmar in which she gets him to opens up about Bianca's personal and medical history are of course meant to get him to come to grips with his own insecurities. We know the whole time where this story is going even if it takes some mind-boggling detours to get there. As Lars becomes Mr. Popularity in town and grows closer to Margo his need for the doll will hopefully diminish and they'll be a breakthrough.

Clarkson is given a near-impossible role to pull off here as a reasonable psychologist who suggests a VERY questionable form of treatment. But she does pull it off and her subtlety proves to be an invaluable asset in a film burdened by craziness. We're also expected to believe a seemingly normal young woman would not only go unbothered by the fact that a guy has a plastic doll for a girlfriend, but would understand and appreciate him that much more. It would be unbelievable if not for the adorably endearing performance of Garner as Margo. There's great chemistry between the two leads and watching Lars come around and eventually bring himself to connect with her is the highlight of the entire film. Both are a joy to watch together and their performances are so good this does manage to be a moving love story in spite of the script's head scratching middle act.

You'll be wondering who the "real girl" of the title actually is since the disheveled and mustachioed Gosling shares just as much chemistry with the inanimate doll as he does Garner. While the movie may forget at times we're dealing with mental illness and get bogged down in eccentricity, Gosling never does. Rather than overplay the quirkiness like many actors mistakenly would he instead inhabits a man wanting desperately to make a human connection but who's unable to. His performance just might be one of the biggest Oscar snubs of the year since the Academy's so busy praising performances in great films, they tend to overlook the times when an actor, against all odds, nearly single handedly drags thankless material like this past the goal line. That's far more difficult. Gosling's name is often mentioned alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Foster as being among the next emerging generation of great actors, but he's lagging behind those two. Not because he doesn't have the talent but because all the projects he picks seem to be plagued with all these little problems. He'll make a great film yet and when the day comes it'll mean a lot more because he cut his chops on material that hasn't been up to the level he deserves as an actor.

The film was directed with a lead eye by first-timer Craig Gillespie. There's nothing interesting going on visually at all but there really doesn't need to be for this type of story. It also takes place in a location I like to refer to as "Nowheresville, U.S.A." a nondescript town you may recognize from other movies where the weather is overcast all the time and no one seems to really do anything. What they are though are the most tolerant, kindest people on Earth to be so accepting of Lars. But this scenario is far preferable to one creating some kind of stupid false crisis with the townsfolk ostracizing him because he's mentally ill. That's a road we definitely didn't want to go down either.

This film can't possibly be looked at as any kind of serious examination of mental illness and has to be taken as almost a fantasy or fairy tale. At its best it's reminiscent of Hal Ashby's Being There, while at its worst it recalls fluffy feel-good films like Waitress. Unlike the latter film though, these people aren't just caricatures. The actors make sure of that. Despite a mish mash of tones there is a unique and special feeling surrounding the film. We really want to believe that everyone could be so accepting of someone with a mental illness and Lars and the Real Girl lets us suspend our disbelief and do it. That's what movies are for and that's why this barely gets a pass. I guess it was just nice to see something with a positive message for a change, as far-fetched as it may have been.

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