For a cinemaphile, I don’t get to the movies much anymore. Work, downtime in bed and now my workout schedule have made it very difficult for me to find the time. There was a period, however, when I went almost 8 times a month. I lived across the street from the now defunct UC theater and in any given week I might see films by Renoir, Billy Wilder, Kurosawa, the Coen brothers or the latest film from Hong Kong. These days, I’m lucky if I make it to the theater five times a year. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Now the experience sort of feels like an event, and those once confounding Toyota sized boxes of candy even seem doable snack– ask me now if I want an extra 52 ounces of Coke for $.25 and I’ll hand you my own bucket.
That said, in the last 365 days I’ve seen three incredible films; Stranger Than Fiction, Once and last week, Lars And The Real Girl. And since “Lars” is still in the theater (though you might have to travel outside your zip code to find it), I thought I’d write something here in the hope that what I had to say might motivate you to seek it out.
Lars And The Real Girl, the irreverent (sorry, had to use it) comedy directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Ryan Gosling, is an absolute work of wonder. In many ways, given its premise, it’s a leap of faith by its creators. It’s a balancing act that never once tips into the unbelievable. In less capable hands, it’s at best A Weekend at Bernie’s and at worst A Weekend at Bernie’s 2.
In the spirit of not giving too much away, I’ll spare you a synopsis (you can get that by checking out the trailer). I will, however, address the elephant in the room and what I consider to be the film’s potentially problematic hook; Lars, the withdrawn protagonist, is dating a “love doll” named Bianca. The problem for the film here isn’t so much about solving Lars’ delusion (there’s your synopsis), but rather how to get us to care for Bianca. If we can this then their relationship feels “real” and the hook justified and earned. Otherwise, it’s a contrived plot device there only to get laughs and make the film feel more quirky and indie.
The responsibility for solving this problem falls largely on the shoulders of the actors, but not exclusively. Gosling’s performance, in particular, is brilliant. Funny, nuanced and deeply affecting, he unfolds the closed Lars with a quiet precision. There are no big moments or cliché epiphanies to this awakening; it simply happens. What’s most interesting, however, and why the film succeeds so magnificently, is this performance never overshadows any other. In fact, it’s the supporting performances which hold the film together — carrying the burden of Bianca and shaping Lars’ transformation.
This is a film that loves its characters. There’s an authenticity and attention to detail that’s present in even the smallest of parts. Gillespie and Nancy Oliver, the writer, understand nuance and capture those subtle gestures that — when noticed — color and demystify body language. How the eyes move after a flirtatious rebuff or the awkward hesitation that precedes a decision to physically comfort somebody.
Watching Lars And The Real Girl, I couldn’t help thinking of It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s a very Capra-esque feeling to it all (except, you know, with an anatomically correct “love doll” as a protagonist). And while there might be the temptation to misread the film as a nostalgic/sentimental championing of a small town way of life, I believe it’s much smarter than that. In fact, to look at it through such a simplistic lens would be to do the film a disservice. This is a rich look at our vast potential for love, caring, patience, forgiveness and understanding. It’s not didactic or preachy, it simply gathers you in with its humor and quietly carries you along.
Later, when you think about it, it seems unlikely to have worked at all, but magically, almost imperceptibly, it does. And in a way so profound and mesmerizing that when that last line in the film is spoken, you’re left dizzy with satisfaction and wanting it to go on.