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No. 46: “Lars and the Real Girl” (2008)

“Sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is and how to spell my name.”
~~Dagmar

Acute loneliness can drive people to extremes. It drives the quiet, mild-mannered Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) to purchase Bianca, an anatomically correct life-size doll, online and make her his real-life girlfriend. No, this is not the set-up for an elaborate joke. Lars brings Bianca into his small social circle literally: She takes a room in his childhood home, now owned by Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his expecting wife Karin (Emily Mortimer); she attends church regularly; she volunteers at the local hospital. And because Bianca matters to Lars, she matters to the people that love him.

It’s hard to believe that “Lars and the Real Girls,” a film in which one of the main characters is a sex doll, could be anything other than juvenile or perverse. Believe it. With “Lars and the Real Girl,” director Craig Gillespie earns a giant heaping of forgiveness for the trainwreck that was 2007’s “Mr. Woodcock.” Certainly Nancy Oliver’s tender, funny script — an homage of sorts to Frank Capra — has something to do with the change. Oliver has crafted a love story so sweet-natured that resistance is pointless. Gosling, who relishes offbeat and challenging roles, delivers a performance of tremendous subtlety and nuance. He reveals much about the fiercely private Lars through the eyes only. Gosling’s character, in his self-imposed isolation, is a heartbreaking figure: a human being who has become a shell.

Lars, as a result of his isolated and sad childhood, has become a tactophobe and a functional hermit. Although Lars holds down a full-time job and attends church, people frighten him, so he avoids them. He comes up with hundreds of ways not to touch or be touched. He makes up lame excuses to avoid get-togethers with Gus and Karin, then sits alone in his grim, chilly little apartment in their backyard. Around his coworkers — particularly Margo (Kelli Garner), who finds him cute if a bit odd — he’s twitchy and guarded. And Lars seems content with this lonesome existence until he catches his cubiclemate salivating over a website that sells life-size sex dolls. Six weeks later, Lars brings Bianca to dinner with Gus and Karen. (Their stunned reaction is the film’s most hilarious scene.) Lars has prepared a detailed history for his new love that explains her immobility and strange outfit (her wheelchair and suitcase were stolen), her muteness (she’s very shy) and her aversion to staying with Lars (she’s a missionary). Gus declares his brother “totally insane,” but local psychiatrist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, warm and wonderful as ever) sees Lars’ behavior as a positive step. “Bianca’s in town for a reason,” she notes, and urges them to play along. Spurred on by the no-nonsense, plainspoken Mrs. Gruner (a frank, funny Nancy Beatty), the townspeople welcome Bianca into their homes.

What’s disarming about “Lars and the Real Girl” is the way that this decision reflects not lunacy, but kindness. There’s not a scene where Oliver paints Lars as a pathetic or creepy figure, or where the script makes a joke at his expense. The film’s gentle comedy emerges from the town’s bumbling but loving attempts to accept Bianca. She’s given a “part-time job” at the mall, gets a hair cut, goes to the doctor, accompanies Lars to an after-hours party with all his coworkers — and through it all, the only chuckles come from the awkward business of pretending that a doll is a real person. The sincerity tempers the laughter somewhat in the movie’s most touching scenes, like Gillespie’s lingering, unbroken and beautiful shot of Lars frozen on the doorstep, unsure whether to join his coworker’s party. The sounds of laughter and clinking glasses make him want to flee; Bianca, however, gives him the courage to push the doorbell. “Lars and the Real Girl” is filled with small moments like this, but they build to a wrenching, strangely hopeful conclusion. Clarkson and Schneider are quietly powerful, while Gosling is nothing shy of a revelation. Even in the darkest moments, Gosling finds hope and determination in a man we believed years dead to this world.

Brain-bending “Shutter Island” a stunner despite faults

Cat, meet Mouse: DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley star in the imperfect but riveting "Shutter Island."

Dry land, no matter where it’s located, offers some measure of comfort — a feeling of solidity, a foundation for the feet. Water does not. Its mysteries are limitless. Martin Scorsese means to capitalize on this elemental human fear early. Does he succeed? Please. The combination of the gray sky, choppy waves, an ashen-faced detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the score — which pulsates with supernatural menace — is dynamite. In these opening scenes, Scorsese yanks us around like marionettes. We’re right where he wants us.

He keeps on yanking throughout this long-delayed, atmospheric Gothic thriller/film noir send-up, perhaps having a chuckle as we labor to wrap our minds around the gnarled plot — much of Dennis Lehane’s tightly drawn novel is retained — and reason out characters who are beyond reason. “Shutter Island” is one of those films where everyone is hiding something; each line of dialogue seems designed to reveal everything and nothing. Listen, in particular, for Deputy Warden McPherson’s (John Carroll Lynch) greeting to the two federal marshals just off the boat: “Welcome to Shutter Island.” His eyes are a little teasing, but his tone says without saying: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Scorsese structures “Shutter Island” so that we don’t, either.

Here comes the tough part. To reveal too much of the plot would be criminal, so restraint will be the name of this game. No doubt you’ve heard lots of murmurs (some disgusted) about a twist; do not let anyone reveal it. Two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, proving again he’s grown to deserve leading-man status) and Chuck Aule (a meh Mark Ruffalo) hop a ferry to Boston’s Shutter Island, the grim site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Sublime character actors like the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson get cameos.) It’s their first case together, and they’re an odd pair: Teddy’s a visibly haunted man while nothing sticks to the low-key Chuck. They believe they’ve come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), locked away after drowning her three children. Though no one at Ashecliffe can or will explain her disappearance, chief psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has a theory. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” he says. Kingsley’s slight smirk is cause for a few lost hours of sleep.

The investigation may be a sham. Patients and hospital staff may or may not have been coached. A recovering alcoholic, Teddy, still reeling from the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), may be a reliable or an unreliable protagonist. Rachel Solando may or may not have had help escaping her tiny, barred-in room. The only certainty is there is no certainty. So “Shutter Island,” essentially, is 138 minutes of known unknowns wrapped in a damn stylish package. Little Did He Know noir throwbacks rarely looked this good. The predominantly gray, chilly colors — of the island, the hospital itself — provide a terrific backdrop for such a twisted story about twisted people. Shots of Ward C, home to the most dangerous offenders, show a Gothic castle of untold horrors, where every corner is dark and puddled. Here “Shutter Island” very nearly swerves into horror territory. It comes closer with Scorsese’s envisioning of Teddy’s dreams, so bright they shatter the grimness. Not unlike Dario Argento in “Suspiria,” Scorsese uses the camera like a paintbrush, splashing rich reds and golds and greens against Ashecliffe’s walls and the island’s rocky shores. If despair is dingy, then horror is technicolor.

Sometimes the artistry goes too far at the expense of other elements. There are enough continuity errors as to be distracting (one stopped me cold during a white-knuckle scene). The music occasionally overpowers the characters — about whom, by the way, we learn virtually nothing. They are foreboding (Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring is downright spine-chilling), and yet their emotional impact is nil. Even Teddy, whose story we come to know and whom DiCaprio imbues with repressed grief and palpable heartbreak, only registers faintly. Then again, “Shutter Island” isn’t out to warm our hearts. The film means to play brains and emotions like piano keys, and it does. And in a psychological thriller? Sometimes that’s more than enough.

Grade: B+

A bang or a whimper?

“SHUTTER ISLAND”!

 

The showdown between expectation and reality begins tonight…

The countdown begins…

…only 11 more days until my year-long misery is ended and “Shutter Island” is released!

Since I blabbered on about my excitement here, I’ll spare you a repeat performance and leave you instead with the trailer. Scorcese, don’t fail me now!