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A peculiar young man: Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl.

The Lonely Guy


By Laura Leon

Lars and the Real Girl

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Who would have thought that a movie about a grown man and his sex-doll girlfriend would be one of this year’s most sensitive and compelling films? I half-dreaded having to review Lars and the Real Girl, for fear it would turn into some sort of one-note stinker. How wrong I was.

The movie opens with a long shot of Lars (a beefier, more jowly Ryan Gosling) immersed in what we soon learn is a baby blanket, looking out a curtained window at a snow-swept Minnesota landscape. What could be utterly obvious—here is a completely socially phobic man who lives an entirely solitary existence—is broken almost immediately by the buoyant presence of Lars’ sister-in-law Karen (Emily Mortimer). Karen and her husband Gus (Paul Schneider) live in the house that the brothers inherited, and she is constantly attempting to coax the reluctant Lars back into the familial home, for breakfast, for dinner, to live. When Lars finally complies—the result of pregnant Karen’s literally tackling him into submission—his silence is palpable.

Through a series of brief vignettes showing Lars interacting with townspeople and coworkers, we realize both the extent of his isolation and the fact that he is well-liked by everybody. There’s nothing psychotic about him; it’s as if everybody just accepts that he’s a bit of a loner. When a coworker shows him an internet site from which you can mail-order sex dolls, it doesn’t seem to register, but six weeks later, Karen calls Lars to inform him that a large box has arrived. That evening, Lars introduces Gus and Karen to his new girlfriend, Bianca. The couple’s initial joy at the idea that Lars is coming out of his shell is immediately doused when they encounter the plastic, bewigged and anatomically correct Bianca, whom Lars treats with remarkable sensitivity.

The rest of the movie focuses on the townspeople’s reactions to Bianca and their attempt to work with Lars’ delusion. As Karen explains later, this is all done out of love for Lars, and while it could have seemed completely ludicrous and/or saccharine, director Craig Gillespie, working from Nancy Oliver’s script, never lets it go that far. It’s important to note that this story could never have worked other than in its far-north setting, where the seemingly endless winter, bleak, flat geography and a cohesive sense of community are immediately established. Somehow, the idea that an entire town will go to great lengths to incorporate Bianca into their lives, even recruiting her to volunteer at the hospital and electing her to the school board, makes sense. And from the moment Bianca appears, Lars blossoms into someone who can actually attend a party, carry on a conversation, and begin to notice the attentions of sweet coworker Margo (Kelli Garner).

There is some subtext regarding Lars’ mother’s death in childbirth, the lack of his heartbroken father’s attention, and Lars’ feelings toward Karen and her pregnancy, but filmmakers keep things focused on character. This is helped by spot-on performances from absolutely everybody, including Patricia Clarkson as the family doctor. That’s not to say that the movie is devoid of serious undertones; Schneider, whose character could have come across as a complete numbskull, delicately evokes a brother’s guilt and, in the process, reveals a lot about a family torn apart through grief.

In its fable-like way, Lars and the Real Girl weaves an emotional yet very funny story that says a lot about how we live and the choices we make with respect to loved ones. What could have been mined for tawdry jokes or, on the other hand, turned into maudlin melodrama, is instead a warm and textured movie that is sure to be on a lot of top-10 lists this year.

Bloodthirsty: Huston in 30 Days of Night.

Hero Wanted

30 Days of Night

Directed by David Slade

Adapted from the graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, 30 Days of Night injects fresh blood into the vampire genre by setting the action in an isolated Alaskan town in the snowy dead of winter. It delivers quality shocks and offers fearsome new bloodsuckers, though the filmmakers hang the picture on a hero-driven narrative as tired as the pun in my lede.

The story begins as Barrow, Alaska, is enjoying its last few hours of sunlight before this northernmost U.S. town is plunged into a month of perpetual night. There is the usual hustle and bustle as night-averse residents board the last plane out of Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Airport, but stranger things are happening. Most of the cell phones in town are found in a pile, burned; every sled dog is murdered.

Sheriff Eban (Josh Hartnett) is troubled by all this, but makes time to mope about his broken marriage to Fire Marshall Stella (Melissa George). These moments are groaningly obvious, and carry the ominous import that the two most annoying characters will be around to the bloody end.

Soon enough, a stranger (Ben Foster) makes himself known by causing a fight in the local diner. He’s the film’s Renfield, a human in league with the terror that’s about to descend on Barrow. Foster, who was Russell Crowe’s scene-stealing sidekick in 3:10 to Yuma, effects the same theft here. Unlike Crowe, however, Hartnett wilts in his presence.

Then the bloodbath begins. With communications cut and no means of escape, the feral, fast-moving vampires descend on the hapless residents. These scenes are fantastic and scary, culminating in an virtuoso overhead shot of the townwide carnage.

The vampires do have a touch of the human about them, and their leader (Danny Huston) is a classic tortured monster. Huston (who is becoming, after Children of Men, The Proposition and The Constant Gardener, my favorite character actor) makes the beast a beguiling mix of ego, cunning, cruelty and, yes, emotion.

Unfortunately, the humans are deadly dull and don’t give the audience much reason to care about them. Though Hartnett has been around for a few years now, it’s clear he hasn’t learned much about screen acting. The story is keyed to his character becoming the hero, and the guy can’t even dominate scenes with no-name actors. This cancels out everything that works in 30 Days of Night.

As the film builds to its climax, Hartnett’s deficiencies go from glaring to blinding. The twist ending still ties the story up neatly, but if the filmmakers think we’re going to feel anything when the sun rises and the hero faces his destiny, they’re crazier than the poor saps in the film who think they can outrun the vampires.

—Shawn Stone

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