One of 2007’s breakout indie hits, “Lars and the Real Girl” was just high-profile enough, profitable enough, acted-by-Ryan-Gosling- within-an-inch-of-its-life enough and conspicuously life-affirming enough to, in the end, warrant a substantial backlash. But a backlash descends every year on overpumped movies as naturally as autumn comes to summer, inevitably, and we need to keep in mind that backlash is as irrelevant to the movie in question as is the hype and popularity that spawned it. In an ideal world, we’d see movies in a vacuum unpoisoned by publicity plague dogs and self-aggrandizing bloggers and clueless critics. Instead, we’re inundated with cant that is predominantly interested in itself and its opponents, not in the movie as it would be seen, by itself, a year or ten down the road. We need to remember, for instance, that while “Juno” didn’t deserve any sort of Oscar, and was far too irritatingly snarky in its dialogue, and bordered on racism in its conservative narrative set-up, the film was still witty and sharply acted and made even Jennifer Garner seem like an actress.
Craig Gillespie’s “Lars” deserves better than backlash, despite and I’ll say this up front being finally too sentimental by half, and mysteriously oblivious to the issue of mental illness. Written by Nancy Oliver, who put in her years in the “Six Feet Under” writers’ room, “Lars” more or less begins with a BuÃ±uelian idea (shades of “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”): a mentally impacted man, grieving for his dead mother, solves the problem of his lonely neurotic existence by ordering a life-sized, anatomically correct sex doll, and then puts her forward to his family and close-knit Midwest community as his new, wheelchair-bound girlfriend. What comes of that for us, in the endurance of scene after scene, is a queasy balance between ghastly comedy and devastating melancholy we’re never instructed by the movie to react one way or the other about Lars’s blank-eyed insistence on the doll’s humanness, so every sequence is an undulating bout of subjective seasickness, a feat achieved solely through the concept and its sincere execution. Every shot featuring “Bianca” is a masterpiece of painful surrealistic farce. But then the film becomes something else; the focus imperceptibly shifts away from Lars-as-problematic-protagonist and onto the busily populated neighborhood around him, who for their own reasons accept Lars’s doll as a real person, and end up inadvertently allowing Lars to find an emotional escape hatch out of the impossible corner into which he’s painted himself.
That “inadvertently” is a key to the shapeliness of Oliver’s story. True, someone in such a cohesive community would think to get Lars professional help, and the movie’s ultimate resolution is a little hard to swallow. But along the way, Gillespie’s film begins at a unique spot, balancing cataclysmically hilarious social unease and beautifully wrought family tragedy, and then, as an answer to both, paints one of the most convincing and generous portraits of small town American life that audiences have seen in years. It’s an easy movie to be cynical about (though impossible to ignore the performances; even Gosling’s characteristically leveling portrayal was overshadowed, I thought, by Paul Schneider as Lars’s guilty, exhausted brother and Emily Mortimer as his relentlessly proactive sister-in-law). And if only the film arrived at its pathos and affection cheaply, unoriginally and/or dishonestly, then I could understand why.
An antique sample of outsider cinema also produced within the American system, William Worthington’s “The Dragon Painter” (1919) comes to DVD as if returning from the underworld, where lost films are ordinarily consigned to flames. A gentle, unpretentious fable about a crazy hermit artist in the mountain wilds of Japan who, when he finds true love, loses his genius, the film is a historic remnant of a bygone age of specialized-audience moviemaking, when films (silent, and therefore without language barriers) were made with ghetto markets in mind. So, alongside the Yiddish cinema, the silents dedicated to Eastern European immigrants and the post-slave culture barnstormers of Oscar Micheaux, there was a subgenre of melodrama made in Hollywood exclusively for expatriated Asian viewers. Naturally, “The Dragon Painter” may therefore be the only American film we’ve seen from the first 60 years of the medium’s existence that treats Asian characters with respect and dignity. That is, until any of dozens of other films featuring its star Sessue Hayakawa emerge from the darkness Hayakawa became famous again in 1957 with an Oscar win as the camp captain in David Lean’s “The Bridge On the River Kwai,” but in the silent years, he was enough of a Hollywood star to warrant the formation of his own production company, Haworth Pictures, under which auspices “The Dragon Painter” was made. (With the advent of sound, he moved his career to Japan.) The DVD comes with a bonus feature, 1914’s “The Wrath of the Gods,” multiple DVD-ROM texts, original scripts, and a 1921 comedy short in the “Screen Snapshots” series, co-starring Hayakawa and Fatty Arbuckle.
[Photos: “Lars and the Real Girl,” MGM, 2007; “The Dragon Painter,” New Yorker/Milestone]
“Lars and the Real Girl” (MGM) and “The Dragon Painter” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.