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:

Thoughts on whimsical, lovable, allegorical nutcases
OK, more thoughts on what this movie isn't. As noted, it's not a twee allegory of the power of belief to turn fantasy into reality. It's not a tale of a charming dreamer who's marching to a different drummer. Which is what you've been conditioned to expect ...

American film has a longstanding tradition of the whimsical male outsider with a screw loose inside his head — Walter Mitty, Elwood P. Dowd, Chance the Gardener, etc. For some reason, Hollywood’s heart goes out to nutty men. It finds nutty women shrill and intimidating, and more likely to take a sledge to your legs than spout a line of homespun Zen philosophy. (Carl — aka "Sling Blade" — took a lawnmower blade to someone’s head. But Carl was likeable, mmm-hmmm.)

With Hollywood pouring whimsy all over you like Aunt Jemima syrup, it’s easy to miss that these guys are in sorry shape. Mitty lives in a world of daydreams; Dowd hallucinates advice from a giant rabbit; Chance, as luck would have it, has the mind of a child.

They're not meant to be realistic characters. These sadsacks function as chess pieces in celluloid allegories of American Belief-ism — the happy notion that thinking something makes it so. (We’re the nation of New Thought, Faith Healing, Positive Thinking and Visualization, after all.) These filmic allegories almost never repudiate America's unofficial religion. (Brazil is the only exception I can think of.) Which leaves two options:

Either (A) thinking something makes it so, and that’s a good thing. (Fantasy becomes reality: As in “The Music Man” or Kevin Costner’s character in the “The Postman.”) Or (B) thinking something makes it so, and that’s a bad thing. (Fantasy becomes reality and reality sucks. See Mother Night and Vonnegut’s dictum: “Be careful what you pretend to be, you might turn into it.”)

Some filmic allegories say you should live in your dreams. Others say you should wake up. What’s lost in the allegorical chess game is the human reality behind the symbol.

If you see Elwood P. Dowd or Walter Mitty as real nuts (as opposed to allegorical nuts), their personal lives are damn sad. These men are damaged goods. Hollywood’s addiction to whimsy obscures the pain they’d feel — if they were real human beings.

Lars isn't an allegory. He doesn't stand for anything. He's a real human being. You feel his pain.

That’s what’s so startlingly original about Nancy Oliver’s script for Lars and the Real Girl — my vote for best original screenplay as of now.

Thoughts on character

Ryan Gosling puts in a great, understated performance — and falls into the trap reserved for every great actor: He's so good, it doesn't seem like he's acting. Lars' inner life is implied, but never directly stated. We see his character from the outside-in. His portrayal doesn't push any obvious "likeability " buttons. His character isn't a creep — but he's weird. Gosling's characterization doesn't sugarcoat it.

For that matter, Oliver's script and Gillespie's direction never elbows you in the ribs for sympathy. The approach is more oblique — more like a documentary. The movie's busting its ass to tell the truth. It isn't trying to win your heart.

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