May 13, 2008

Mini-review: Lars and the Real Girl

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

Lars and the Real Girl
Lars and the Real Girl (movie; 2007)
Written by Nancy Oliver
Directed by Craig Gillespie

So let me ask you something -- what exactly do you think of quirky indie films set in the American Midwest, featuring borderline-retarded man-child shut-ins who eventually teach entire small towns about what is truly important in life? Because the answer to that question, see, is going to profoundly reflect what you think of Lars and the Real Girl, a 2007 small-budget film that is guilty of every single thing just mentioned, the directorial debut of Craig Gillespie from a tight but very precious script by "Six Feet Under" writer/producer Nancy Oliver. In fact, that's the very first thing to understand about this movie, long before you sit down to actually watch it; that although its premise could easily serve as the backbone of a raunchy sex comedy as well (man flips out and falls in love with one of those expensive full-sized "love dolls"), in this case it's used to tell a touching and very chaste character-based dramedy, one that like Chocolat uses a bizarre MacGuffin as an excuse to actually tell a story about an entire community, and of the way the community ends up learning something about itself because of that MacGuffin.

For the guy who flips out, see, turns out to have been not quite right in the head in the first place; played with an understated charm by Ryan Gosling, his Lars Lindstrom is only semi-intelligent, an obsessive churchgoer and daytime office worker, who has been slowly retreating from humanity since his sister-in-law first got pregnant a few months ago, presumably because it reminds him of his own mother's childbirth-related death. As the pressures in Lars' life mount, then -- including not only his increasing pregnancy worries but also an increasing pressure by his family to "be more social," not to mention a growing crush on nerdy co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner in an early-career breakout role) -- he suddenly does experience a legitimate break from reality, secretly ordering a love doll after a weasely co-worker brings the company's website to his attention one day, and then for all intents and purposes acting like she's an actual human once it arrives, to the point of asking his brother and sister-in-law if she can "sleep" over at their place as good Christians should.

After a blessedly short period of the film, then, where basically the entire town stands around slack-jawed at the sight of Lars sitting around talking to a sex doll (the only scenes, incidentally, used in the movie's commercials, thus proving once again that most movie marketers don't have even the slightest clue what the best thing is about the movies they're hired to market), the real crux of the movie finally starts coming out -- of just how this small, tight-knit, deeply religious community is going to deal with the ongoing mental illness of one of their own, this person who most of them already know and love for his simple-minded sweetness. (In fact, this is the biggest complaint I have about the film, is that an awful lot of script finessing had to go into why the town keeps letting him walk around talking to a sex doll like it's his girlfriend; basically, combine a lack of mental-health facilities in the area with a part-time psychiatrist in town who believes it healthy to let Lars "play out the entire fantasy," dubious medical advice at best but that you need to swallow in order to enjoy this movie.)

As the weeks progress, then, we as the audience come to understand the same thing the town does; that it's not about the wackiness of Lars' delusion, not about some creepy rubber mannequin that keeps getting dragged around the city, but rather about being a decent human being and going along with the "therapy" Lars is currently going through, of helping him maintain the delusion so that he doesn't risk a complete and utter breakdown, and along the way becoming a better person to even one's non-rubber neighbors. And that', it's okay, you know, a story that borders on cutesy and twee at all times but that thankfully rarely steps over the line. A big part of that can be attributed to the low-key, highly enjoyable performances by almost everyone involved; part of that can simply be chalked up to the movie's low budget, forcing a certain amount of cinematographic blandness that in this case actually works in the script's favor. It's one of those movies that's right on the cusp of people's opinions, as far as the relative benefits and drawbacks of quirky indie comedies; you're bound to find it either good but with a caveat, or bad but admirably so. It's not a movie I'd say to go out of your way to see, but definitely one worth your time if you ever happen to accidentally come across.

Out of 10: 8.0

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:07 PM, May 13, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |