Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Lars is no "Psycho"

The film Lars and the Real Girl (2007) speaks wonders of up-and-coming director Craig Gillespie who manages to depict a story that in anyone else’s hands might have turned out horribly painful. The air of tenderness surrounding all of the characters in the story left me feeling touched, moved, and frankly surprised that it didn’t turn down the dark road of a mean-spirited SNL-esque sketch. Gillespie took on writer Nancy Oliver’s innocent notions with the utmost understanding of her pure intentions, never once crossing the very fine line into mockery. I couldn’t imagine laughing at any of the characters in this hour and a half of enchanting dramedy, and instead found myself sympathizing with a character who, frankly, is nothing short of a sociopath.

Lars is introduced to us through the window of his garage-converted apartment, staring timidly out into the vast expanse of white covering the front lawn of the adjacent house and driveway belonging to his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) in their small mid-Western town. This garage-apartment is his safe haven, and he’s not quite sure whether he wants to let us in. We are never really invited to see much of his house at all, setting the tone for a story of Lars’ reserved nature and his temerity of letting anyone come too close. We find soon after that he is high-functioning enough to get by in life, albeit living close to family and working a simpleton office job. His life is very quaint and comfortable, and it seems as though he does not want to step outside of his shell, preferring rather to stay comfortably cloistered in his warm sweater and blanket-shrouded life.

After Karin’s repeated attempts to have him over for dinner, Lars shows up at his brother and sister-in-law’s door to announce that his new girlfriend has just arrived from out of town. The married couple is initially ecstatic at the news that Lars has met someone, only to find soon after that his new girlfriend is a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll from a web site introduced to him by a coworker. He explains her amazing story to them: Bianca is a Dutch-Brazilian paraplegic missionary who will be spending her nights in the upstairs bedroom of his brother’s house because she does not believe in premarital relations. What ensues from here on out is a heartwarming, emotional tale of a young man who is afraid of personal connections and the community who goes out of their way to make a connection with Bianca.

As Lars’ doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) states, “Bianca is in town for a reason,” and it doesn’t take a lengthy explanation from her psychiatric mind for us to understand Lars’ motives behind his purchase of a life-size doll from a sexual fetish web site. Long gone is the necessity for films to feature the narrational figure explaining away details that an audience can readily infer. After leaving the film I found myself juxtaposing the refreshing lack of explanation present in Lars to the over-explaining nature of a film like Hitchcock’s Psycho: instead of giving the audience credit for their intelligence and allowing them to make the connection from Norman to his mother and his obvious mental illness, Psycho insists on using the psychiatrist character to wrap all the details into a nice little package for the audience to compute. Cinephiles of the 21st century have grown up with films, have learned to read into the symbolism in a movie much like one learns to do with works of literature in a freshman English class. The modern moviegoer should be given credit for their intelligence, and Lars and the Real Girl is willing to let the audience take their intelligence and run with it.

When Lars suddenly suggests that Bianca has gone into a state of shock and her health steadily begins to decline, the audience is able to lead themselves to the conclusion that these notions originated in Lars’ head, and that they represent a path of change for his character. He presents the problem to his family, he insists that her health is on the decline, he begins arguing with her in a parked car in the middle of nowhere, all the while receiving continued support from his family and community. Instead of the film explicitly explaining that he is letting go of Bianca and all notions of make-believe, that he is beginning to be interested in real human contact and therefore no longer needs to “play with dolls,” the narrative takes us there seamlessly, allowing the audience to come up with these conclusions for themselves.

The understated narrative running its course throughout this film pairs well with the underrated acting of Ryan Gosling, who I believe continually maintains believability and genuineness with his depiction of a troubled and tarnished boy trapped in a twenty-something’s body. (In my opinion, showcased in films such as Half Nelson (2006), Ryan Gosling is one actor who can say so much with his face while remaining silent) There are many scenes in which Gosling makes it very clear to the audience that Lars actually believes he is holding a conversation with Bianca. It doesn’t matter that this doll is gorgeous and has functioning sex organs, because to Lars these facts are insignificant: the only important thing is that Bianca is someone who will listen to him and accept him for who he is, despite all his faults. There is not a single moment of falsehood in his performance; never once does he “wink” at the camera. The only moment when I really stopped and thought how ridiculous the entire premise was occurred at the end of the film, and the feeling was quickly replaced with joy over Lars’ ultimate personal connection he finally pursues.

In reality, don’t we all suffer from the insecurities of dating and the pain of loss? Lars is just an extreme version of our insecurities, and thus is never pragmatically diagnosed as being one thing or another. Sure, he might have other problems related to his parents’ deaths while he was still very young, but I wouldn’t call him a certified nut job. In the end, Lars just needs a little security and practice to believe that he could get over his psychoses and be successful in a romantic relationship. Innocent, kind and intelligent, Lars and the Real Girl restores faith in relationships and community, allowing us all to see that insanity is truly a state of mind. And honestly, don’t we all go a little mad sometimes?

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