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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.

Review: “Bright Star” (2009)

In this age of limitless Internet, online dating and instant gratification, “courtly love” has become a foreign concept … if anyone remembers it at all. (There’s a chance the English majors will keep it alive.) But Romantic poet John Keats, whom tragedy seemed to shadow, couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Neither, it seems, can Jane Campion. The New Zealand director’s “Bright Star,” a gorgeously lensed film about star-crossed lovers Keats and Fanny Brawne, is a love letter to a bygone era. Fret not that “Bright Star” is so out-of-touch as to be boring; it crackles with wit, energy and sexual tension. Some qualities never go out of fashion.

Understand upfront that “sexual tension” does not translate to “lots of sex scenes” and you’ll go far in understanding what makes “Bright Star” smolder. Sex is nowhere to be found. But forbidden passion, or passion tucked into the day’s hushed corners, is far more potent than even the steamiest beast-with-two-backs encounter. Of course, it helps if the undersexed lovers in question can generate real heat. Abbie Cornish (Fanny) and Ben Whishaw (Keats) can and do, right from the start. A plucky student of fashion, she has no need of poetry but feels a spark of affection for Keats, her next-door neighbor and a struggling poet. (This part is historically accurate — critics crushed “Endymion” upon its release.) She dispatches her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) to fetch Keats’ book with this message: “My sister has met the author and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.” Who can resist a girl with gumption like that? Keats is a goner; the fun part is waiting to see how long until he realizes his heart’s lost to the cause.

At first, Keats isn’t sure how to take Fanny. She makes no bones about her distaste for poetry, yet there’s a softness in her that takes him by surprise: she embroiders a pillow slip for Keats’ brother, dying of consumption. Cornish and Whishaw are marvelous in this scene, sadness and tentative hope playing on their faces. Fanny says she’s entranced by the beginning of “A thing of beauty.” Her insistence that he teach her to understand poetry works and he warms to her — so slowly he realizes his affection only after his roommate/reader Charles Brown (a scrumptiously rakish Paul Schneider) jokingly sends Fanny a valentine. Reality quickly bursts their love bubble; Keats is sick and penniless and knows he can’t provide for Fanny. “I have a conscience,” he tells her, and Whishaw lets his anguish boil over. Fanny and Keats suspect their story’s finale will not be a happy one, but even in the 19th century love didn’t listen to reason.

Given the true ending to Keat and Fanny’s affair, “Bright Star” could have ended up a wailing melodrama that wallows in its own misery. While Campion does touch on the tragedy, she’s not interested in recreating “Romeo and Juliet.” She focuses instead on creating a vivid tale of first love and its transformative powers. In the process, Campion also creates an artful portrait of 19th-century Hampstead. Her attention to detail leads to some breath-snatching shots: Fanny, in a violet dress, reading poetry in a field of irises; Fanny and Keats kissing on a blanket with the rippling reeds behind them. Then there’s the best shot of all (one you’ll miss if you blink) of Fanny lying on a white bed with the white curtain swirling in the breeze of the open window. Visual poetry exists in this that struck me senseless. It’s a scene that somehow illuminates Fanny’s confusion over her growing passion for Keats and her rapture.

What a treat it is that Cornish, Whishaw and Schneider don’t get lost in such shots. A superb character actor who deserves more parts like this, Schneider’s boorish charm nearly excuses his spotty accent. Whishaw handles himself well in a demanding role, embodying Keats’ hopeless fight to reconcile what his heart wants with what his head knows. Cornish, however, is the clear standout. She is fierce and vulnerable and enchanting; she turns one of poetry’s best-known muses into flesh and blood. “Bright Star” indeed.

Grade: A