Sunday, October 7, 2007

Lars review

When a loved one loses touch with reality, the people around him often have to make a difficult choice: pack him off to the nearest mental institution, or embrace the crazy. Assuming, of course, the crazy doesn’t mind being touched.
The first film (unless you count Mr. Woodcock) from veteran commercial director Craig Gillespie, Lars and the Real Girl is the tender, albeit twisted, story of a young man who falls in love with a sex doll and his hometown, which doesn’t burn him (or her) at the stake because of it.
Lars charms, even as it dips into the rather depressing reasons why young Lars (Ryan Gosling, who surely as the Golden Globe wrapped up) believes the sex doll he buys over the Internet is not only his girlfriend but a real, if conveniently wheelchair-bound, human being with whom he carries on conversations. Conversations, which, thanks to the smart ear of Six Feet Under scribe Nancy Oliver, are far more believable than Jimmy Stewart’s one-sided dialogue in Harvey.
To be sure Lars – don’t you just love that name? – has a lot to get off his Paul Bunyan-sized chest. Despite the fact that he is clearly uncomfortable in his own skin (he wears about four layers of clothing, which not only protects him from physical contact with others, but makes him look like a giant compared to everyone else), his co-workers at the crummy office he works at won’t leave him alone. Of particular nuisance is the new girl, Margo, who wants him something fierce. But Lars has to be pummeled by his pregnant sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), in order to eat a meal with his own family, so Margo’s chances don’t seem very good.
A quick cut from an office colleague’s sex doll site to the delivery of a giant UPS box, however, lets us know Lars doesn’t want to be alone, after all. Oh no, he definitely yearns for companionship company – just the kind that isn’t going to die giving childbirth (like his mother) or abandon him (like his brother). Bianca arrives, much to the shock of Karin and Lars’ brother Gus (played winningly by Paul Schneider). Gus is ready to ship him off to the loony bin, but Karin suggests following the advice of Patricia Clarkson. I don’t know about you, but I’ll do whatever Patricia Clarkson tells me. She just seems to be the wisest person in any room. Anyhow, it’s not long before everyone in town has overcome their initial wonder and turned Bianca into the town’s most popular gal.
While Bianca is the toast of the town, Lars still has problems. His social awkwardness remains at stratospheric levels, he’s obviously worried about Karin’s impending delivery, and he’s slowly finding himself attracted to Margo. Doesn’t matter. He loves Bianca, despite the fact that she refuses to marry him (I know, right?) and is apparently a religious prude. Lars isn’t even getting any, but then again, with her busy volunteer and work schedule, Bianca doesn’t have much time for Lars anymore.
If the premise sounds absurd, I assure you it’s not. I think. Delivered with such tenderness, the small details of the story are at once mortifying, touching, hilarious. Lars needs a first relationship, and just as many of us have confided our darkest secrets and fearful nightmares to journals, childhood dolls, imaginary friends, and finally to God in the act of prayer, Lars too needs someone with whom he can talk at his pace and have a primer relationship that is, pun intended, made-to-order.
Like most first loves and all movies, Lars and Bianca cannot last forever. The arc of the relationship between Lars and his lady love, Lars and his family, Lars and the town, Lars himself, this is a story which is no more quirky than any of trying to become a man.
At one point, Lars asks Gus when he knew he was a man. If it was sex. Gus responds yes, then wavers, no, that being a man is a process, not an end destination, and involves doing the right thing for others, not necessarily for yourself. At this point, Gus apologizes for leaving Lars with his still-grieving widower father. Lars immediately forgives him. It’s a small moment and seems to have little consequence, and yet the conversation appears to be between two people who’ve never really spoken to each other. It’s like an ‘80s laundry commercial, but without the big hug at the end.
Later, the way Lars and Bianca part allows him to say goodbye and mourn the end of that first relationship, an act of release the audience feels he was not allowed as a child. Stunningly, Ms. Clarkson had it right all along. The delusion must serve some purpose, and when its purpose was served, it would vanish with the winter snows. It’s like she read the script beforehand.
All kidding aside, Lars is the most satisfying and sensitive film (and no gross-out parts, thank you very much) to question what makes a boy a man. And of course you might be charmed by the ease with which the town adopts Bianca, unless you see it as the softer side of mob hysteria. Then again, everything is a matter of perspective.

Note: The cut I saw of the film, which I presumed was a final cut (and was never told otherwise) and was seen after its premiere in Toronto, did have a troubling production problem as the sound boom appeared in maybe a third of the shots. Hopefully that distracting problem is fixed before wide release. If ever there was a film where suspension of disbelief hung on a thread, and a vital thread at that, it’s Lars.

No comments:

In summing up, I wish I had some kind of affirmative message to leave you with. I don't. Would you take two negative messages?
-- Woody Allen