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A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response
(Springer Series on Stress and Coping)
by George S. Jr. Everyly, Jeffrey M. Lating
(Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)
"Lars and the Real Girl"
This may be the oddest romantic comedy you've ever seen. Though it defies category, it bears more of a resemblance to quirky European films of the genre than anything that usually emerges from our American shores. Perhaps a film of this sort makes sense when you realize that it comes from the pen of screenwriter Nancy Oliver, who previous penned 7 episodes of "Six Feet Under" and was directed by Craig Gillespie who also did "Mr. Woodcock." Aha. Now we're beginning to understand.
Exploring the world of the clinically delusional, the extraordinary undertaking (no pun intended re the aforemention TV show) fixes itself on Lars (Ryan Gosling), an attractive and amiable young man, and a virtual hermit despite his brother Gus's and sister-in-law Karin's efforts to bring him out of his comfort zone of seclusion in the garage. When he does commune in a public setting, it's either for work or for church.
In either place, pretty blond Margo's (Killi Garner) efforts to wangle him into a date, a walk, a moment's conversation are equally rebuffed by this guy who just wants to be alone. To make matters worse, he has a serious aversion to being physically touched -- by anyone.
The people close to him have no idea how good it is for Lars, compared to the way it's going to get. A major transition in the life of a head case who is, at least, functional for all intents and purposes, begins with his excitement and delight when a large box is delivered to his quarters. In it, as it turns out, is a life-size plastic, anatomically correct doll ordered online which, to Lars is "Bianca," a real human being and his true love.
"Embarassment" isn't quite strong enough to describe Karin and Gus' reaction. It's now a question of sanity. Their natural response is to take Lars and Bianca, at the first opportunity, to local doctor and wise therapist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson). She explains the nature of the mental illness afflicting Lars as an externalized delusion to deal with an internal stress. The only thing to do about it is to go along with the delusion, accepting the "reality" of Bianca. By suggesting to Lars that she has high blood pressure and therefore needs to return for regular office visits to monitor the situation, Dagmar cleverly creates the opportunity to treat Lars.
Before you know it, the entire community is forewarned and goes along with it, as well, play acting the doll's reality. Bianca sits at the dinner table (Lars "eating" for her); Karin clothes and reclothes her; women come calling with a meal and their company; she's accepted as a parishioner at church. Meanwhile, Margo is observing the development with amazing understanding and patience, and gets involved with a new fellow employee at the firm. Lars' reaction to her new relationship, showing signs of discomfort, suggests he may be feeling a touch of jealousy, the first hint of normality.
As you, the reader, may detect, this isn't as idiotic as it may sound. As situational comedy, it's off the charts. There isn't a wrong note in the acting department either, with a cast that brings reactive credibility to the quirksome nature of the premise. Mortimer is steadfast and beautiful in her immediate and total support of her brother-in-law's needs; Schneider is a study in brotherly adaptation and goes through a development arc that's about as interesting as Gosling's; Garner plays it almost as strangely as Gosling does, making her seem like the true soul mate for our troubled hero; and Clarkson's warm delivery of a tricky and devilishly delicate psychotherapy is almost inspiring.
As for Gosling, he makes it seem like no other actor could have rendered this character with more sympathy nor less pandering. As he has shown in power of performance for "Half Nelson," calling for a similarly high level of human understanding, and in his cerebral gameplaying venture, "Fracture," he is an actor of depth, energy and dedication. He reminds me of Edward Norton for the incisive quality of his work and selection of material.
Unless you're too hardnose for such soft-headed movie adventurism, the peculiarly original take on romance adds a touching level of sensitivity to the genre. But what is one to think of a romantic comedy spun out of a psychological syndrome? That it's possible? That the genre need not imply fluff and emptiness?
Happily devoid of humor based on ridicule, "Lars..." achieves almost excruciating concern and sympathy in an entirely stand-alone package. Good show.
~~ Jules Brenner