Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Gem & A Guilty Pleasure
Lars and the Real Girl & Awake

In a hundred years of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like Lars and the Real Girl, the new film from director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under). Lars (Ryan Gosling) is not quite right in the head; he keeps to himself, he can’t bear to be touched, and he resists the efforts of his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to draw him out of his self-imposed solitude. Then one day, he asks Karin and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) if he can bring over a friend. They are delighted, until Lars’ friends turns out to be an “anatomically correct” silicon love doll named Bianca. Lars informs them that Bianca is Brazilian/Danish, that she’s shy and doesn’t talk much, and that, being deeply religious, she doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping alone with Lars (in the garage where he lives). So Karen and Dave agree to put Bianca up in their place and, convinced Lars has lost his marbles, they suggest that Bianca visit the local G.P, Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) for a check-up, hoping to put Lars under observation. After meeting Bianca, Dr. Dagmar suggests that, for the time being, they go along with Lars’ fantasy and see what happens. Before long the whole town has agreed to treat Bianca as real: she attends church, has her hair done, and eventually gets accepted on the local school board.

Funny as it is, Lars and the Real Girl isn’t really a comedy; and although it’s an exquisitely tender-hearted film, it’s never sentimental (having a silicon sex-doll at its center pretty much makes sure of that). Like Lars himself, the movie doesn’t allow itself to be categorized. It’s a lovable oddity in a felicitous “tradition” of flukes that includes Harold and Maude, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Donnie Darko, Harvey, and United States of Leland (also with Gosling), movies that by all rights shouldn’t work but somehow do. Lars and the Real Girl takes us into unexplored realms of humor and pathos, areas of experience that—outside of real life—probably only these oddball empathic American movies can provide.

As played by Gosling, Lars is a prodigy as well as a freak; he’s impossible to get a handle on. How much does he believe Bianca is real? We never know for sure. Lars has a sweetness and vulnerability that’s both heartbreaking and heartening, but there’s a solidness to him too, a determination and directness. He’s a survivor, and though he may be delusional, he’s not solipsist. He stays true to his delusions, his fantasy world has a life it its own (he fights with Bianca when he feels she is becoming too independent). Before we know it, the plastic Bianca begins to seem real to us, too.

In interviews, Gosling has remarked upon the similarity between Lars’ peculiar affection for Bianca and the love children feel for stuffed toys (Gosling observes how the love children feel for their toys is genuine even though it is never returned). This similarity is made explicit in the movie when Lars gives mouth-to-mouth to a co-worker’s teddy bear (Margo, played by Kelli Garner, in a lovely, soulful performance). Like a child, Lars loves from both sides, and by the end of the movie his weird delusion has come to seem almost enlightened, like saintly, unconditional love. (What could be more selfless than loving someone who can never love us back?)

Lars learns how to relate to others by finding the soul in an inanimate object, and by finding his own capacity to love, he discovers his own soul. And the whole town learns by his example. Lars’ delusion has the power of vision: it transforms reality into something better than it was before. With its kooky, off-kilter wisdom and its dead-on portrait of small-town Americana (where everyone’s a freak on the inside), Lars and the Real Girl is enough to restore your faith in human nature. It’s a goddamned miracle.

Awake, the new thriller by first-time director Joby Harold, takes off from a grisly real-life phenomenon called “anesthetic awareness.” This is when patients are unaccountably left fully conscious—and physically paralyzed—during surgery, and Harold (who also wrote the script) has spun a preposterously entertaining yarn from this grisly germ of an idea, and manages to hold us in a vice-like grip for pretty much the entire film. How often can you say of a Hollywood thriller that you don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next? Awake is brazenly indifferent to plausibility, but you can’t help but admire the film’s audacity. Along with fantastic plot twists, Harold throws Hitchcockian flourishes and elements of Greek tragedy into the mix like a crazed chef. In lesser hands, Awake would have been a tawdry melodrama, but Harold believes in his material so fervently (in a way a more seasoned professional never could) that the film works on several levels at once. Ingenious as it is, it’s not mechanical—it has soul.

Harold brings such energy and focus to the scenes that he transcends the subject matter and gives it an almost surreal intensity, and the performances are strong enough to keep the film’s nuttiness from capsizing it. Jessica Alba is suitably luscious and beguiling (her role gives new meaning to the term “heartbreaker”), and Lena Olin and Terence Howard are both in fine form. As the unfortunate victim of anesthetic awareness, Hayden Christensen comes into his own as a performer (having mercifully managed to escape the Mark Hammil curse: that of being horribly miscast by George Lucas). Christensen has an unusually expressive face (the camera takes to him), and he can convey emotion without ever appearing to do much—fortunately, because the film hinges around his internal struggle, and on our feelings of empathy for him.

Awake is a white-knuckle movie experience if ever there was one (it even carries a viewer warning), with some of the most sheerly visceral scenes of horror ever committed to celluloid. Watching someone undergoing open-heart surgery while fully conscious (and able to feel the incision) is enough to frazzle the nerves of the most hardened horror veterans, and this film is certainly not for the squeamish. Too bad the loopy plot (and the melodramatic character revelations, which are really just tired genre conventions) finally stretches our credibility to breaking point. As a result, Awake lacks a strong climax, and as a rollercoaster ride it doesn’t have enough emotional depth to be fully satisfying (its shallowness is at odds with its rather contrived attempts at pathos). But for most of its length it’s close to a pop classic, and probably the best metaphysical thriller since The Sixth Sense (a film I didn’t much care for). In fact, Harold better watch out or he may wind up as the next M. Night Shyamalan. Awake has so many twists it makes you dizzy.

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