Thursday, November 1, 2007

Crazy for You

Lars And The Real Girl presents the improbable tale of Lars Lindstrom, a socially inept dude in a middle-American small town right out of A Prairie Home Companion. He's shy of thirty and shy about meeting women. Lars solves his social anxiety disorder by purchasing a $6,500, anatomically correct female doll (the "Real Girl" of the title) — after which, he gives her a name (Bianca) and a back story, starts treating her like a real girl, and introduces her to the people he's close to. Instead of locking Lars in the loony bin, the town shrink advises Lars' friends and family to play along. They do.

You probably think you know where the movie's going — but it doesn't go there. It's not a twee allegory of the power of belief to turn fantasy into reality. (Or, for that matter, a Jack Black movie.) Screenwriter Nancy Oliver and director Craig Gillespie had something more original in mind.

Oliver's hero — Lars — is a damaged human being and not an allegory. Oliver did what screenwriters often don’t: She took her premise seriously and worked out its implications realistically. Rather than pushing buttons for effect, she showed us what the life of this character (somebody who experiences physical touch with another human being as pain) would be like. She gave us an honest story, not a cute story.

After years of Hollywood conditioning, you don't expect that. You're jonesing for an allegorical fix. Somehow, Bianca is going to become (a thousand critics googling “Pygmalion” as we speak) a real real girl.

The Minnesota villagers humor Lars in his delusion. A typical Hollywood movie would take that premise and do something cute with it — find a way to turn Bianca into a "real" girl.

One real life woman would gradually substitute for Lars’ plastic, fantastic chick — and probably change her name to "Bianca." Lars would never notice the seamless transition.

Either that, or some cheapjack "Magical Realism" in which Bianca literally tranforms into a real girl. 

That’s not what happens in Oliver’s story.

Instead, Lars wakes up from his delusion on some level (and, in fact, desiring a real-life woman) makes a decision (subconsciously or consciously) that his doll woman must die. In the delusional narrative Lars creates, Bianca gets sick and dies. When she’s finally dead, he howls with pain. After that, he does connect with a real real girl. But there’s no painless substitution or cute ending — it’s more like chopping his arm off.

Granted the premise, that’s what would really happen — though it may be argued that people aren’t as nice in the real world as they are in the Minnesota of Nancy Oliver’s imagination. I’d like to think they are — or could be — especially in the way they act to the very real and very damaged people among us.

One “Dogville” is enough.

Nitpicky analysis:

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ronin critic

Hi kids. This is your favorite critic speaking. I was raised by a critic. I eventually grew up, and turned into a critic. People paid me for it. I figured it was the natural order of things. My destiny. Nah.

First I was downsized. I hung in there as a freelancer. For boring reasons I won't get into, that doesn't work anymore. Basically, I could make more money competing with illegal farm workers picking tomatoes. Poor me. But let's cut to the chase.

As of now, I'm a Ronin critic. Which is to say, nobody's paying me to throw stones (or flowers) at plays and movies -- at least for now. No one is to blame. The Cold Equations of economics have spoken. The Invisible Hand has slapped me to the curb. I don't take it personally.

But, until the Invisible Hand changes its mind, I'm writing this stuff for free. Yep. Like a chump, dolt, poltroon, sap, feeb, chucklehead, I'm just giving it away. After I write the stuff somebody's still paying me for, of course.

OK. Seeing as how I've got nothing to lose, it's as good a time as any to regurgitate a statement of critical principles. (I'll stick to live theater, but most of this applies to film and TV.)

The script is the thing
Many critics approach live theatrical performances like judges at a figure skating contest. They hold up imaginary signs -- 10-9-3 — ranking the director, actors and technical people. The story behind the exercise is an afterthought, or no thought at all. This may be useful to theatergoers who don't want to waste their precious time, but it’s not my style.

To me, a play is a primarily a work of fiction. The actual performance is a delivery system for the script. I start with the script. I talk about the story.

See, I'm not just a lazy bastard cranking out plot summaries. I actually think the story's important.

I trust my own responses
If I love (or hate) the play when I'm watching it, I don't try to talk myself out of it when I write about it. My first response is my most honest response.

Screw the intentional fallacy
When I see a play, my natural tendency is to say, "OK, here's how I'd do it." I fight that tendency. I force myself to ask what the writer wanted to do. What were the goals? Did they succeed?

So, you can have a lousy idea and a brilliant execution, a great idea and a lousy script. You can also have an EVIL idea and a great or lousy script. (In the world of film, Leni Reifensthal comes to mind. She made brilliant movies promoting Nazism.)

If a script is fundamentally wrongheaded, the actors and directors can all hit a "10" and it's still a waste of time.

I judge the story first. Then I judge the performance.

That's pretty much it.