I just saw a movie which reminded me what I had come to Hollywood, wanting to write movies. Ten years ago, seeing a film with a theme not too different from Lars and the Real Girl (the flick I just saw) helped make me a film buff.
This film, like As Good as It Gets, the flick that so moved me back in 1997, has as its heart a theme similar to that of many great and good movies, the power of human relationship. But, this flick, unlike the James L. Brooks-directed flick set in the Big Apple, was set in a small town and had, it appears, a considerably smaller budget.
Despite those differences, it was as engaging and amusing as the more costly New York-based production. It may even have been more touching. I don’t remember crying when I saw the film which earned Jack Nicholson his third Oscar, but I did tear up on several occasions while watching this flick.
Where to begin? Going into the film, I didn’t even know what it was about. I only went because several friends had recommended it to me. About twenty minutes into the flick, when we learn that Lars’ (Ryan Gosling) first “girlfriend” in the film is a life-size doll he had ordered off the Internet did I recall having seen a preview several months ago promoting the flick.
While the story itself seems unbelievable, the script and the actors at least help us sympathize with its protagonist, a young man who has trouble relating to others We learn that he had never really dealt with this death of his own mother when he was very young nor recovered from the aloofness of his father after she had passed.
Working with this unusual premise, a man who believes a mail-order doll to be his girlfriend, Nancy Oliver has constructed a beautiful script, one of the best written I have seen in quite some time. No wonder she won the National Board of Review‘s award for best original screenplay.
Not only is the script well-written, but it’s also psychologically correct. We see Lar’s brother Gus (Paul Schneider) reacting as we would expect a man to react to this strange situation while his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) shows a little more compassion for her brother-in-law’s delusions. And soon, thanks in large part to the wisdom of the town physician Dagmar Berman (Patricia Clarkson) the whole town tries to help Lars by playing along, pretending to believe that Bianca, the life-size doll, is real. Even Margo (Kelli Garner), Lars’ plain co-worker who has a crush on him.
Each one of these actors is convincing in their role–as are those in a number of smaller roles.
There is so much in this flick, stuff that has a personal resonance for me, and images, ideas and themes with universal significance, stuff that I dare say, would resonate with most of us. I took particular note of an exchange early in the flick where Karin wants to play along with Lars so as not to hurt him. If I remember it correctly, Gus asked, “What will people think?” She replied saying something like, “that should be the least of our worries.”
The gist of the exchange was that it was more important to help their brother than to appear normal. Human relationships take precedence over public perception.
And the film kept builiding on that notion of the value of such relationships.
It’s not just that this film gets the importance of relationships right, it’s also that it gets Midwestern America right. It shows the people in this small Wisconsin town to be decent human beings, looking out for their neighbors. Heck, this guy even goes to church regularly. And that’s not held against him (or the others who attend Sunday services with him) as it is in some Hollywood productions of late. Even the Reverend comes across as a caring man. (Contrast that with John Cusack‘s portrayal of a grieving Minnesota father in Grace is Gone.)
The one character who really struck a chord with me was Clarkson’s Dagmar Berman. (With a name like that, one really wants to know more of her backstory.) As always, Clarkson adds a dimension to the role that even a screenwriter as gifted as Oliver may not have intended, a dimension entirely consistent with the character she (the writer) created.
It was nice to see a doctor in the role of a psychologist who really wanted to help her patient. Berman showed compassion for Lars’ delusion and wanted to help him better understand it, telling his family that the life-size doll “came to town for a reason.” She wanted to figure out what that reason was.
We could all use psychologists with such concerns. Her character should become a role model for those in such help professions, reminding them what their business is–to show compassion for those who have trouble relating to the world around them and help them find means to overcome that difficulty.
That compassion set the tone for the movie. For, instead of mocking Lars’ strange relationship, the townsfolk join Dr. Berman in accepting Lars’ delusion. While the audience laughs at some of the absurd situations on the screen, the residents of this town take seriously their fellow’s feeling. As a result, as I watched, I was alternately laughing and crying. A comedy with a heart.
Without a doubt, this is the best movie of the year, at least from what I’ve seen. It has so much in common with the greatest of Hollywood motion pictures. And like those, this one adapts those great themes to the time in which it is made. This movie uses the Internet, while developing a plot built around our increased understanding of mental illness.
Geared to a contemporary audience, this film has captured the essence of what was once Hollywood’s stock-in-trade, a belief in the decency of most Americans, even those in small towns in the “red” states and counties of our great nation. A recognition of the values of family and community. And the power of human relationships.
Hollywood used to produce movies which recognized those things. if the entertainment industry ever wants to regain the standing it once had with Americans, it’ll make more movies like Lars and the Real Girl.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)