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USA 2007
Directed by
Craig Gillespie
106 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1.5 stars

Lars And The Real Girl

Synopsis: Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) lives and works in a small mid-western town. He lives in a converted garage behind his old childhood home occupied by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karen (Emily Mortimer). When Lars introduces a prosthetic doll as a real person whom he claims to have met on the internet everyone who knows him is faced with the problem of how to respond.

Indie film like Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, C.R.A.Z.Y. and so on have delighted us all with their quirky characters that both make us laugh and move us empathetically with their depictions of the struggles of everyday people to get by. They have provided small but rewarding pleasures with their mix of gentle absurdity and all too recognizable pathos. Lars And The Real Girl scriptwriter Nancy Oliver and Australian-born director Craig Gillespie, who is responsible for the deservedly short-lived Billy Bob Thornton comedy, Mr Woodcock, have appropriated the elements of the style and turned them into a pat contrivance that is clever enough not only to look indistinguishable from the real thing but that takes the distinctive dramatic elements and seamlessly matches them to target audience expectations so well that one actually feels uncomfortable NOT liking this film. That Oliver’s principal credit is as a writer on the television series Six Feet Under and Gillespie has spent the last 17 years making television commercials is not accidental. These guys know about manufacturing product.

So how do you make an indie film? – take a dysfunctional character or characters, give them a ordinary family who live a banal life in some non-descript town, use ordinary looking actors, have lots of “uncomfortable” moments and pregnant pauses in a story that involves people accepting other people for what they are, add some jaunty indie pop tunes, bake at a medium pace and serve with a happy ending.

Lars And The Real Girl does all this but where it goes wrong is that in the extremity of its idea it never delivers the beauty of the mundane and the key features of the indie style are over-stated. This is evident in the opening scene in which Lars refuses the entreaties of his sister-in-law to come to breakfast. Lars’ laboriously evasive response is not that of the shy, awkward guy who deserves our sympathy but that of a wilful isolationist. Fair enough one might say, that’s still quirky, but the problem is that it is not a curmudgeon but the former character with his wanly diffident smile and comfort blanket knitted by his dead mother permanently around his neck whom we are meant to take to our hearts, as does indeed the whole town in which he lives.

This is another element that rings particularly hollow. I’m not a huge fan of Frank Capra’s small town films even as vicarious nostalgia and clearly Oliver has used these much loved classics of American film as a point of reference. But in what sort of town does Lars live? It seems initially that he is a member of some kind of small, anachronistic, close knit Scandinavian Calvinist community. Under these conditions I could accept that its members would incorporate his idiosyncracies even if they are remarkably compliant in so doing (compare for instance 2004’s As It Is In Heaven for a much more effective portrayal of such a community). But though the town appears to be much larger than this community, that it is too universally complicit in Lars’ delusion to be remotely credible.

Capra’s films were sentimental fantasies designed to comfort Depression-era audiences but even its characters had recognizable mountains to climb and there was, as a result, meaning and value in the stories told. The same might be said of the indie films we all love so much. But by the time Lars’ doll is on a trolley receiving full emergency resuscitation treatment after being rushed by ambulance to hospital, one is more inclined to yell “Give me break” in frustration at the complete inanity of what one is being asked to accept in the name of the quirkily cute. Similarly when Lars asks his psychiatrist/surrogate mother (Patricia Clarkson) is the treatment (supposedly of his doll but him really) working and she replies “I don’t know” one can only ask why NO-ONE in this town has anything better to do than to humour a self-preoccupied dufus with chronically bad taste in knitwear. By the time that the full-scale funeral for the plastic doll takes place the film seems more to be a mockery of its innumerable 'small-town" forbears than an off-beat addition to the catalogue.

Whether Lars' delusion is meant to taken at face value or not (periodically there are intimations that Lars has contrived the whole situation as a form of self-therapy), I found an hour and a half of him and his crappy doll (that it is so clearly unwieldy, more like a store mannequin than a sex-toy, suggests that we should not take Lars delusion for real) more than long enough. Does that make me a cynic as those who are not convinced by this movie are being tagged ? All I can say is: “Get real!!”.




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