Tuesday, April 29, 2008


This week’s movie:


When I think about it, I realize that it could have all gone terribly wrong!

I never doubt the power of a film to reestablish faith in my fellow human beings ……especially those human beings in the film. Film people are so fascinating. When they’re well written, they lead fascinating lives, they experience perfect fascinating romances, they have exciting and fascinating adventures, and - and this is very important - always say just the right things - fascinating. They have problems - they resolve problems. They have conflicts - they resolve conflicts. They sometimes die, but you can always restart the DVD …….and there they are again! The Kinks’ song says, “I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show.” Maybe they were onto something.

BUT ………when a film is NOT well written or directed or produced, it could easily all go terribly wrong.

I live in small town USA. It’s not really that small. It’s not small enough for everybody to know everybody else - but it IS small enough for a lot of people to know a lot of other people, plus there are little sub-communities of families and neighbors who are very close-knit. But I can only imagine an entire town, even a small one, pulling together the way people do in this week’s film, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL.

Now here’s where this review can all go terribly wrong. If I tell you the premise of this movie, and I don’t do it carefully, you will never ever want to see this film - or worse, you can wait to see it, having a certain expectation of it, and be totally disappointed. I’ll probably get this wrong, and I may have to do this more than once, but here goes. Lars, an emotionally disturbed introvert, buys a life-like sex doll so he won’t be so alone …….and his family and small town friends are shocked …………and ……….dang! This is all going terribly wrong. Let me try this again.

Lars …….(so far, so good) ….has issues. He doesn’t say much, he doesn’t go out, and he doesn’t like to be touched. He has many many emotional issues. He now lives in the garage behind the house where his brother and his brother’s wife live. He is incapable of having a normal relation with anybody, even though the young woman at work is clearly interested in him. One day, a co-worker shows him a site for realistic love dolls - and so, he orders one - Bianca. He invents a back-story for her (I don’t know, maybe they each come with one). Since he can’t connect with real people, he decides to get himself a fake one.

When he shows up at his brothers for dinner, he insists that she be treated like a real girl, and so she gets her own place setting. He speaks to her and speaks for her. She’s been in an accident and is confined to a wheelchair. Also, she’s very religious and it wouldn’t be right for her to sleep under the same roof as him, and would it be OK for her to room in the big house with his brother’s family? They take him to see a psychologist who tells them that Lars is just working through some issues, and maybe the best thing would be if everyone just accommodate Lars and go along with it. Reluctantly, they agree and soon the whole town is going along with it.

Now, here’s where the film could have all gone terribly wrong.

In a lesser movie, lewd raunchy sexual jokes would have been made about the various purposes to which ‘real dolls’ are traditionally used. The brother would have stopped in at Bianca’s room for a nightly quickie because he, in flash of self-awareness, discovers that he is doll-curious. There would have been a scene where Lars is lifting Bianca from the wheelchair and is caught off-balanced. He fumbles and somehow she ends upside down and her dress falls down, leaving Lars with a face full of anatomical correctness - just as a pair of old ladies happen to walk by to be conveniently shocked. Or worse, they would animate Bianca whenever Lars was alone with her so that she could give him advice ……and only by making love to her can he truly be cured (I’ve actually seen this movie). Or worse than that - she’s magic, or possessed and causes evil things to happen in town and actually kills to satisfy her doll blood lust. As the death toll mounts, Lars must find a way to save the day - and himself ……and cure himself in the process (come to think of it, I’ve seen this movie too). And, if that isn’t enough to get a laugh, someone, somewhere in the movie, somehow would manage to end up eating poop (sadly …….I’ve seen this one too).

But none of these things actually happen in this film.

Let me make this perfectly clear - nobody in this film ever has sex with the doll. If you were hoping for that, then this movie is not for you. In addition, you’ll never see it naked. The movie isn’t about that. This movie IS about two things. The first is how everybody in town quickly adapts to the situation and accepts Lars’ new girlfriend into their community. I suppose they think it’s interesting or fun (it’s fun to play with dolls), or maybe they just get into the spirit of the thing. Soon, Bianca is the most popular girl in town. The girls take her for ladies’ night out, they do each others hair, girl talk - that sort of thing. Soon, she’s everywhere - working here - volunteering there - going to parties - sometimes she brings Lars.

The other arc of the story has to do with Lars. With Bianca, Lars suddenly begins to interact with other people. He gets invited out, sometimes to parties, sometimes just out - and he goes! He also starts working out his issues, with the help of his sessions with Dagmar, his doctor (psychologist), and with Bianca. During their many walks out in the woods, he starts to open up. In many ways, this entire film is about Lars’ journey of self-recovery.

Lars is not an easy character to get right. The entire success or failure of this film hinges on being able to portray his character without overacting or appearing ignorant or pathetic. Lars is none of these things. He’s smart - smart enough to know he has problems and needs help. He smart enough to know that people realize that Bianca is not real but in his way, asks them to go along for his sake, and he’s smart enough to know when he doesn’t need Bianca any more. The film has a great cast - everybody is perfect for their roles (Patricia Clarkson, who plays the doctor, is one of my favorite actresses, and she doesn’t disappoint here), but it would have all fallen flat if it wasn’t for Ryan Gosling who plays Lars. I haven’t seen every one of his movies, but I’ve seen some, and he’s been outstanding in every one. In particular, his virtuoso performance in Half Nelson earned him a well deserved Oscar nomination.

In other words, it doesn’t all go terribly wrong. Not like some other movies I could mention.

  1. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. How it all went terribly wrong. The original Star Wars invented a new formula and was fresh and different and exciting. The recent series tried to use the same formula, and so now it just seams old and stale and boring. How to fix it. New formula - plus lose Jar Jar.
  2. City of Angels. How it all went terribly wrong. This was supposed to be an English language remake of the very excellent Wings of Desire (one of my favorites) but they either didn’t watch the original movie, or didn’t understand the original movie, or didn’t even know there was an original movie, or ….they just purposely wanted to make an awful movie. How to fix it. Watch the original movie, dammit! Call Wim Wenders on the phone to explain it to you.
  3. The Number 23. How it all went terribly wrong. This is supposed to be a thriller - it would help if it was thrilling. How to fix it. Add some scary bits, suspense, action, intrigue. When all else fails, get someone to eat poop.
  4. Snakes on a Plane. How it all went terribly wrong. Catchy title, but premise is just too outlandish. Even Samuel L Jackson’s ‘m…..f…… snakes’ line cannot redeem it. How to fix it. Go the other way. Make it more outlandish. Make it bizarre! No - make it freakishly bizarre! At least then you’d remember it.
  5. Lady in the Water. How it all went terribly wrong. M. Night Shyamalan’s last film could have - should have been great. Instead, it was just OK. The plot was too complicated for this kind of film, it doesn’t have a pervading motif, it tries to be more than one kind of movie. How to fix it. Rewrite rewrite rewrite!
  6. The Hulk. How it all went terribly wrong. Ang Lee’s Hulk - not the excellent TV show Hulk. The best think about the Hulk in the TV show (and in the comics) is not the Hulk part - It’s the Bruce Banner human part, and how he deals with the fact that he’s the Hulk and doesn’t want to be. The Hulk is not all that interesting. He smashes things, and says “Hulk smash!” and then smashes the crap out of lots of other things, then lumbers or jumps off. There’s only so much smashing you can take before you want to smash something yourself. How to fix it. Make Hulk smart! Then - he could muse about things, for example - he could ponder the significance of the army tank, comment on it phallic representation, espouse on man’s technological superiority in the creation of such a construct while, at the same time, regretting the use to which it is put - a seemingly paradoxical superposition of constructive and destructive influences - oh, the folly of humanity ………..all this just before he smashes it to tiny bits.
  7. In the Cut. The Meg Ryan sex movie. How it all went terribly wrong. This is not how you want to see Meg Ryan. Meg is sweet and funny. You want to see her in a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks, all cute and smiley. You don’t want to she her nude on a bed with her hands busy between her legs. It’s too shocking. It’s like seeing your own grandmother naked. It’s like seeing Minnie Mouse naked. How to fix it. Replace Meg Ryan with someone you’re comfortable seeing naked, someone you would expect to see naked. Maybe Jenna Jameson.
  8. Battlefield Earth. How it all went terribly wrong. First of all, somebody put film in the camera. Then the scripts were delivered on time. The actors showed up. They were able to reserve a studio. Yes, a whole series of events occurred in just the right sequence to allow this movie to be made. How to fix it. Go back to step one and prevent the film from entering the camera.
  9. P.S. I Love You. How it all went terribly wrong. This film was miserably miscast. Some people should not should not should not play romantic comedies. How to fix it. Modern romantic comedies have upped the ante. Perhaps a realistic, anatomically correct sex doll would help.
  10. Mr. Woodcock. How it all went terribly wrong. In a comedy, it’s essential that you have at least one likable character instead of monochrome, one-dimensional archetypes (I have never used the word ‘archetypes’ ever in my life). The amazing thing is that the film-makers watch the dailies and say, “Yes!! That’s a keeper!” …..and mean it! How to fix it. This would work better as a drama or as a very dark comedy - plus, somebody has to die!!!!!! ….maybe everybody - yes, everybody!!!! MWAAH HA HA HA HA HA HA.

If you think I’m getting a bit carried away by a movie whose story is based on a life-like sex doll, then I’m not the only one. FIlm critic, Roger Ebert writes,

Only after the movie is over do you realize what a balancing act it was, what risks it took, what rewards it contains.

You can read his entire review here. Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Joural writes,

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.

And Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of ‘Spirituality and Practice’ write

One of the best films of the year about the love, kindness, and hospitality of a Christian community for a lost and lonely soul.

On the tomatometer, it’s praised by 81% of the critics, but by 91% of regular viewers (like you and me). Common Sense Media rates LARS a PAUSE:15+, meaning that it’s age appropriate, on average, for age 15 and above, but know your kid - if your kid is highly sensitive, then maybe that age should be push higher, if your kid is pretty savvy, then maybe that age could be push much lower.

It could have all gone terribly wrong - but it didn’t.


watch the trailer


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