Friday, August 18, 2017

Review - Ornamental Hairpin

August 18, 2017

Ornamental Hairpin – Japan, 1941

There is a noticeable difference between World War II-era love stories made in Japan and their counterparts in the United States. While American films such as Pearl Harbor and From Here to Eternity often present patriotism and love as going hand in hand, with patriotism receiving just a slightly greater prominence, many Japanese films present war as an obstacle even to the first date. It is almost as if thoughts of love are selfish when the country’s honor is at stake, and even when it is clear that two characters are in love, the fact that there is a war going on can prevent characters from even acknowledging their feelings aloud. Instead, they’re more prone to long loving looks that are often tinged with regret and stoic resolution. To me, such moments resonate more than those in which a couple says good-bye before shipping off to fight. They at least had joy; their Japanese counterparts often did not, and it is truly moving to see a character realize that what she wanted is something she will never have.

I reflected on these things after watching Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1941 wartime film Ornamental Hairpin. The war is only fleetingly referenced, yet every character seems acutely aware and affected by it. Young boys shout bonsai as they raise their arms, older people cling to tradition and established hierarchy in a way that people only do when they feel threatened or uneasy, and a steady stream of travelers leave the city in search of temporary respite from the chaos of the big cities and its constant war drums. And of course there’s the budding on a love that has no chance of a happy ending. War sees to that.

Ornamental Hairpin takes place at a popular mountain resort that, oddly enough, seems both popular and unprepared for the wave of visitors that descend on it. In its opening scene, we see a party of young geisha walking briskly along a dusty road reflecting upon just how wonderful it is to be away from the big city and the problems that come with it. One even remarks with wonder about how much she is sweating, for which her companion doesn’t share her enthusiasm.

We then meet a number of other residents. There’s the cranky professor (Tatsuo Saito), who has some pretty lofty notions of what his vacation is supposed to be like; his children, Taro and Jiro; two men sharing adjacent rooms, Nanmura and Hiroyasu; and Hiroyasu’s wife, who is unfortunately forced to endure the professor’s dismissive comments whenever her husband asks for her opinion. Shimuzu devotes much of the film’s first act to establishing these characters, and while nothing much happens narratively, we get a great sense of who they are and why they came together. I grew to care for them, even for the professor, whose mannerisms are likely the product of a lifetime spent adhering to tradition as if there were no other alternatives.

One day, as the men are enjoying time in the resort’s outdoor bath, Nanmura (played by a very young Chishu Ryu) steps on a hairpin inadvertently dropped by one of the young ladies staying there and is injured so severely that he requires crutches and physical therapy (playfully administered by Taro and Jiro, of course). He takes it all in stride and even speculates that the woman who lost it must be an extraordinary beauty. The professor chalks that up to the poet in him. As luck would have it, the woman, Emi Ota (Kinuyo Tanaka), contacts the hotel about her lost item and upon being told that it injured someone decides to return and apologize.

What follows is a beautiful and moving courtship that is something akin to a dance, with each person taking turns leading the other into the next phase of their relationship. At times, he leads, demonstrating to her his proud character and noble attributes; at other times, she carries him, sometimes literally, over the awkward hurdles that love can put in the way of two so smitten as they are. It is a beautiful thing to behold. We hear little of the war or of Nanmura’s role in it; we learn more about Emi’s backstory and realize just how much she has invested in Nanmura.

As I watched this unfold, I was reminded of the ways in which we measure time and of how we know that it has passed, by life’s small, but noticeable milestones – the end of the baseball season, the first day of a new school year, the first sight of Christmas lights – milestones that themselves begin things that are also transitory. All things indeed eventually end. Here, though, fate is especially cruel. There is no promise that someone will wait, no sudden elopement, no night of passionate embraces and tears. War, as it does so many things, prevents it. And by showing it, Shimizu may have made one of the subtlest and most heartbreaking anti-war statements of all time. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu)

3 and a half stars

*Ornamental Hairpin is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review - Japanese Girls at the Harbor

August 10, 2017

Japanese Girls at the Harbor – Japan, 1933

By the time Hiroshi Shimizu made Japanese Girls at the Harbor, he had been making films for nine years, having begun his career in 1924 at the age of 21. I learned this after watching the aforementioned film, and it made me rethink some of my previous notions, for while watching the film, I had remarked how many of the things he was doing with the camera came across as experimental, as the work of a young filmmaker toying with the camera and testing its potential. I had intended to say that his work reminded me of some of the early films of other Japanese directors like Naruse and Ozu, auteurs whose early films include some camera techniques that they abandoned later on and many that they kept.

Some of the things that caused me to have this impression came early on in the film. In the film’s opening scene, Shimizu pans across Yokohama’s harbor at such breakneck speed that it is impossible to get much of an impression of the area. During a crucial scene later on, Shimizu positions his camera far away from a young woman to give a view of her from another character’s point of view. Then the camera leaps forward in spurts in a highly unnatural way, one that is almost certainly for the audience’s benefit, and not the characters’. It was odd and seemingly resembles the movements of a camera in a horror movie, which Japanese Girls at the Harbor is anything but. However, there are also moments of sheer genius. I have never seen anyone who can make a small space look as immense as Shimuza. He also makes intriguing choices with the camera. For example, he isn’t above using a long shot during a moment that almost every other director I can think of would use a close-up, and I absolutely loved the way characters did not just exit shots; instead, they gradually dissolved, as if they were merely ghosts in someone’s nightmarish vision. I’m not sure what it meant, but it intrigued me none the less.

I wish, therefore, that I could say that I watched Shimuza’s film in awe, overwhelmed by the realization that I was in the presence of a master. After all, this is a director that Kenji Mizoguchi praised as being a genius. However, for me, Japanese Girls at the Harbor has a narrative that undercuts it. The simple story of two young girls, Dora and Sunako, in love with the same rebellious boy, Henry, the film simply doesn’t establish any of its characters, leaving much of this to the film’s intertitles, many of which are an unfortunate example of telling and not showing. Regrettably for Dora and Sunako, Henri is a playboy who can’t seem to stay interested in any one person for very long. He is drawn toward “good” women, yet lured back into sin by “bad” women, and he inevitably elicits feelings of rage and jealousy that culminate in one of them committing an act that causes her to be ostracized from society.

I admit this sounds appealing, yet it all happens so quickly that little of it resonates. Then the film take an obscure turn and introduces a love-struck painter who is obsessed with Sunako and takes every opportunity to paint her. In fact, he seems to paint nothing but her, and his days are spent trying to hawk these supposed masterpieces to passing pedestrians. He also appears to live with her, which makes little sense since the film implies that Sunako turns to the oldest profession in the world to make a living. In the meantime, Henri marries Dora, only to be feel himself drawn back to Sunako, perhaps out of an unextinguished passion or the dopamine-like sensation that some men get when given the chance to save someone.

As I said, the potential for a great movie is there, yet screenwriter Mitsu Suyama never finds a compelling narrative rhythm. Characters move with little established motivation, and so little time is spent building connections between these characters that when relationships are threatened, the risk doesn’t resonate. After all, how can we care if a marriage falls apart if we have not seen what brought it together in the first place? And why should we rejoice at a couple staying together if we’ve seen no evidence that they are actually in love? It’s safe to say then that I watched the film at a distance, never so far away that I fully entertained the notion of leaving, but never so close that I could invest myself emotionally in the plights of the characters on the screen. The film just sort of lies there, not fully comatose, yet pretty darn close at times. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Travels with Hiroshi Shimuza box set)

2 and a half stars

*Japanese Girls at the Harbor is silent with English intertitles.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review - March of the Wooden Soldiers

August 3, 2017

March of the Wooden Soldiers (a.k.a.Babes in Toyland) – US, 1934

My, how times have changed. There seems to be a cardinal rule nowadays that a musical must begin big, and by big, I mean with a grand, pulsing musical number that quickly has the heart racing and the toes tapping. Think about it. Chicago opens with “All That Jazz,” The Music Man begins with “Rock Island,” and Into the Woods launches its whimsical journey with “I Wish,” a number which perfectly establishes every characters’ motivations and is a pretty nice number to boot. In fact, rarely does a modern-day musical open with a slow song, the argument being perhaps that it wouldn’t resonate as well with the audience. Interestingly, this is not the case with March of the Wooden Soldiers. It starts with a number that moves at the speed of molasses and then throws two more equally glacial numbers in for good measure. (In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that these are practically the only musical numbers in the entire film.)

Fotunately, the film hits its stride rather rapidly, as if shifts to the bedroom of two brothers, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, and entertains audiences with a simply scene involving the two asleep and a feather blowing between them. From there, the film gets to the point in almost no time. The two are the eldest children of the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe, aka Widow Peep (Florence Roberts). The shoe is the property of Mr. Barnaby (Henry Barnaby), a Scrooge-like character who walks hunched over on a cane and talks in a slow, purposeful voice that just screams out villain. His mannerisms seem entirely plucked out of a handbook on silent film acting – not that I minded at all. Barnaby is interested in marrying Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry), the old woman’s eldest daughter, and he implies that if Bo Peep will not marry him willingly, he’ll resort to other means. Ah, but have no fear. Stannie and Ollie are on the case. In other words, the old woman is doomed – at least in the short term.

The film includes a collection of characters from classic fairy tales. There are the Three Little Pigs, Tom Thumb, the Cat and his fiddle, and Little Miss Muffet to name just a few, and part of the delight is seeing how many you can recognize. It is also fun to see Laurel and Hardy in a film with a clear narrative arc, which many of their more slapstick-filled films did not have much of. Of course, the drawback of that is that March of the Wooden Soldiers has less of what audiences likely went to the movie theater hoping to see. And it goes without saying that the legendary Stanley and Oliver mannerisms are a delight to behold – from Stanley’s problems with vocabulary to Oliver’s deadpan expressions whenever things just don’t go his way.

March of the Wooden Soldiers is likely remembered fondly for its final act, from which the film gets its title, and there is still something magical about it, even in the age of actors performing in front of realistic-looking computer-generated images. We have grown accustomed to absolutely lifelike images onscreen, yet the ending is a revelation because it actually reminds us of just how much work has gone into producing special effects over the last century. It’s the same reason that King Kong continues to impress despite not entirely appearing lifelike. We suspend disbelief. Today’s movies make it so we don’t have to.

Not all of what goes on in the March of the Wooden Soldiers stands up to scrutiny. If you think about it too much, it doesn’t make much sense that Tom is accused of pig-napping or that Bo Peep’s immediate reaction to discovering that she is lost in the absolutely last place you want to be lost in is to go to sleep. And perhaps only a cynic like me would point out that the soldiers do as much damage to Toyland as the bad guys do. In the end, though, none of it mattered. I watched the film with a smile on my face and a good feeling in my heart. It’s a film that kids will love and adults will chuckle at. However, you may have to remind them that the musical numbers are mercifully few. (on DVD and Blu-ray)   

3 and a half stars

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review - At the End of Daybreak

July 27, 2017

At the End of Daybreak – Malaysia, 2009

It is tempting to read Yuhang Ho’s 2009 film At the End of Daybreak as an indictment of society as a whole, one so distracted and self-obsessed that tragedies that are playing out in plain sight are completely missed. The film weaves a tale of young love gone astray, one in which young people seek to grow up too early and some of those that are supposed to have entered adulthood lapse into immaturity and dependence with such regularity that it is only time before something disastrous occurs.

The film centers on a relationship that develops between Ying (Meng Hui Ng), an inexperienced fifteen-year-old high school student, and Tuck (Tien You Chui), an experienced twenty-three-year-old man who works at a small supermarket owned and run by his mother. The relationship is in its infancy, and, therefore, both of them keep it a secret. Tuck goes so far as to hide from his mother when Ying calls, just as a young boy is apt to do. As the relationship progresses, we watch as Ying becomes distracted, begins cutting class to be with her guy, and experiments with both cigarettes and alcohol. In short, it’s every parent’s nightmare, and as a parent, it gave me a lot to think about. Perhaps that’s why I feel slightly guilty for not liking the film a bit more.

The film follows the relationship as if evolves, grow more adult in nature, and then is discovered through one of those lapses in memory that often leave easily hidden secrets out there for all to see. From then on, the film is something different, something that gives evidence of people’s baser instincts. The relationship is not merely morally wrong; it is also a crime. And that fact gives Ying’s family a great deal of leverage over Tuck and his mother, leverage that Ying’s parents use, not for the protection of their daughter, but to enrich themselves.

On paper, a set-up like this must has looked tantalizingly juicy. However, as both writer and director, Ho struggles to find a pacing that fits the story. A number of scenes that are intended to give viewers a glimpse into Ying’s mindset just sit there, revealing nothing and grinding the film to a halt. There’s a subplot involving a group of girls that aggressively bully Ying that doesn’t go anywhere, and Ying’s parents are not given the time needed to fully flush out their characters and their motivation. There’s also the matter of likability. For the first forty minutes of the film, I found both Ying and Tuck hard to get behind. They never came across as in love, and because of their childlike demeanors, it seemed clear that neither one should have been in a relationship - with anyone. I doubt this impression was intended.

Fairing better are two of the supporting characters. While Ying remains cold throughout the film, her best friend, Wan, is bubbly, cheerful, and supportive, and this enables the audience to see Ying in a more positive light. On the other side of the coin is Tung’s mother, played by Kara Hui. In her scenes, we get a good understanding of just why Tuck is the way he is. After all, it isn’t always easy to grow up when your mother fluctuates between needing you to be mature and pandering to your every need. In fact, I don’t remember her ever chastising her son for putting himself in such a compromising situation. Instead, she relies on the numbing effects that way too much alcohol can have on the senses.

At the End of Daybreak get off to a slow pace and then picks up the pace in the second half, yet the film never truly soars. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the film goes where so many others have gone before. Savvy viewers – even ones who do not know the true story behind the film - will spot the its obvious forecasting of Tuck’s tendency toward violence, and that diminishes the effect of his eventual actions. That said, what follows the tragedy at the heart of the film is somewhat eye-opening, especially for those not familiar with some of the beliefs that exist in parts of Asia. In the end, At the End of Daybreak is mildly interesting. It contains one truly stellar performance, Hui’s, and does just enough towards the end for the film to stand out slightly from other films with similar stories. However, with such an interesting case at its heart, just being watchable is a bit of a letdown. (on Blu-ray in Region 3)

3 stars.

*At the End of Daybreak is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

* Karen Hui won numerous awards for her performance as Tuck’s mother, including Best Supporting Actress as the 46th Golden Horse Awards and Best Actress at the 16th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings

July 20, 2017

On Arrival and the Diminishing of Milestones

I haven’t seen E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for quite a long time, and every time I think about watching it, I just can’t bring myself to do it. Sure, I liked the film when I saw it, but as time passed, I grew less fond of it. In my mind, the film became for children. And it was not just E.T. that underwent this change. I would have an equally difficult time sitting down to watch other films I previously enjoyed a great deal, in particular, films like Explorers, Starman, and Contact.
  
What all of these films have in common is that they take an event that would alter civilization’s perceptions of itself and life as a whole - the discovery of life in outer space - and reduce it to an experience felt and understood only by a select few people. For example, E.T. and Explorers make mankind’s first encounter with aliens just another part of the maturation process of young children. In Starman, the impact of the alien’s arrival is felt mainly by two people, a kind scientist who puts the alien’s health ahead of his quest for knowledge and the woman whose form the alien takes. In fact, the film dismisses all of the questions that such an event would create by saying that the scientist – and by extension the audience – would not understand the answers. How convenient. In the case of Contact, a film whose ending is often misunderstood and wrongly criticized, alien life seems to exist only to help a young scientist cope with her longstanding father issues.

Compare the scopes of these films to those of other ones. In The Terminator, it is the destruction of mankind that must be prevented; The Day the Earth Stood Still contains a message for humanity about the dangers of nuclear weapons; and the treatment of the aliens in District 9 is a metaphor for the world’s often horrendous treatment of refugees. Even in things as silly as the Transformers and Independence Day films, the stakes are universal, not individual.

I believe that that when we are young, our views are narrower. We know less about the cultures and history of other countries, we see certain emotional issues through the eyes of the people who talked to us about them in our youth, and we are more focused on our immediate world – our friends, our cars, our relationships, our dreams. This changes as we get older. We gain perspective, an awareness not only that our actions have consequences but that there is a greater purpose than self-fulfillment. It is in adulthood that we truly understand the sentiments behind the oft-quoted lines from Star Trek, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”

And this brings me to Arrival, a movie that chugs along nicely for about an hour and a half and then abruptly runs in a wall of incongruity. For most of the film, we watch as two characters that represent the best of humanity work feverishly to make sense of an alien arrival that has the potential to bring out the worst in us. In a surprising scene, we learn the purpose of the aliens’ visit, and, while it is a bit simplistic, it makes complete sense and shows the interconnectedness of all of the inhabitants of the universe. And then it doesn’t. If I understand the ending correctly, the second realization in the film, that time can be bent, has no value for the world as a whole. It isn’t to be used to prevent wars or mass genocides, and its potential to prevent famine and mass casualties due to flooding or fire is insignificant. No, if Arrival is to be believed, the ability to know the future serves only to enable Amy Adams’s character to make a decision about whether to have a baby that she knows will not live to be an adult. Personally if I knew that my newborn baby was going to develop a lethal disease, I would become an expert in diseases and work as hard as I could to find a cure. Adams’ character just passively accepts it, an act of non-action that does not gel with her character by the end of the film. Worse than this, it puts the emphasis squarely on her, as if the alien arrival had occurred solely so that she could make a personal decision. Its implications for humanity are seemingly secondary, and this left a sour taste in my mouth.

How else could Arrival have ended? I’m not sure. By then, the film had boxed itself into a corner. After all, you can’t have a world in which everyone has the ability to see and change the future. If you did, you’d have a film that could almost act as a prequel to Timecop. But if an event as monumental as the first contact is only of consequence to one person, then that event is diminished in both importance and consequence. It is cute instead of substantial, personal instead of global. In other words, it is of import to the few and inconsequential to the many. As adults, we’re supposed to know better than this.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review - The Star Prince

July 13, 2017

Star Prince, The – US, 1918

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. It’s a cinematic cliché, but in the case of author- filmmaker Madeline Brandeis’s 1918 film The Star Prince, the sentiment seems wholly appropriate. The film is set in a fairy tale world that will appeal to young children, and just so happens to have a cast made up of exclusively children, many of them in adult roles. For contemporary viewers, this may make the film something more akin to a public school theatrical performance than a major motion picture, but the casting decision was not all that uncommon in the past. Many musicals were variations of the “Let’s put on a show” theme, and sentiments may have been such that seeing children cry out, “I’ll love him forever” may not have provoked the uncomfortable feelings that it can today. In fact, I highly doubt a film like The Star Prince would get the green light today.

The film follows the exploits of a young boy who falls to earth – literally - and is adopted by a poor family in the woods. The boy senses he is different and grows up to have quite a sense of entitlement and superiority. In one scene, we see him commanding his brothers and sisters as if they were his subjects and he their king. The story kicks into motion when he and his siblings bully a poor woman who turns out to be the boy’s birth mother. This sets in motion a tale of redemption and ultimately love and acceptance.

The film is a lavishly costumed affair, and if you allow your mind to wander, it isn’t hard to picture the bright and vivacious colors that went with the character’s splendid attire. The film also has its share of cuddly animals, some that are integral to the plot and others that seem to be there to elicit oohs and ahs from an audience enraptured by such sights as playful bear cubs frolicking near a waterfall. One can even see the hands of a magician behind the camera, and although I have no way of proving this, it seems clear that Brandeis had been inspired by the work of Georges Melies.

I wish I could say that I liked the film a great deal, but even at 58 minutes long, it simply seemed direction-less. Plot points are established and then resolved a few minutes later, and half way through the film it turns into one of those stories in which two people are determined to be together even though society seems intent on keeping them apart. The boy’s quest for his mother seemed entirely forgotten. At one point, the Star Prince is asked to find a hidden cache of gold by a witch who is imprisoning him, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. Then confounding the situation even more, the boy gives the gold away, returns to the witch empty-handed, is threatened with annihilation, and decides to run away. Just why he journeyed back to the witch’s den in the first place is beyond me. I also grew tired of the animal interludes, the brief breaks in the action during which the audience sees deer going about their normal business in a forest. Again, in 1918, audiences may have been much more receptive to moments like this.

Have said this, I thoroughly enjoyed the world depicted in the film. I got a kick out of the talking squirrel, was awed by the clever editing that makes it appear that magic is indeed being performed on screen, and generally liked the over-the-top performances. In fact, I would expect nothing less from a cast of children playing adult characters coping with adult emotions as well as with what to children would be very unfamiliar situations. Brandeis shows real talent here as a director and a creator of new worlds. The problem with the film is the script, which Brandeis wrote. It goes in too many directions and comes together in less than satisfactory ways.

People often forget the role women played in early Hollywood. Before it became the place of multimillionaires and lucrative contracts, women wrote many of its screenplays and were given more of an opportunity to direct. When the money began pouring in, many of these early film pioneers found themselves on the outside looking in. Hollywood became much more testosterone-driven. It’s a shame. Hollywood – and by extension moviegoers – truly missed out. While The Star Prince didn’t completely work for me, it more than adequately demonstrates the unique eye that Brandeis had as a director. Sadly, it was the only film she made. Our loss. (on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers box set)

2 and a half stars

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review - Lars and the Real Girl

July 6, 2017

Lars and the Real Girl – US, 2007

In Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl, there is an important scene missing, the one I refer to as the establishment. In the establishment, the audience receives valuable information about one or more characters that is then used to compare or contrast these characters, or just to make sense of events or actions that occur later on in a film. Such a scene may set up a personality flaw, establish a close or strained friendship, or explain the rules through which we should comprehend the action that follows. For example, think of the opening scene of 2009’s The Proposal, during which we get an excellent look at the pressure of a woman’s staff and their fear of making a mistake. Think of the opening scene of Blade, which establishes just what makes Blade different from other vampires, or the closing scene of Pulp Fiction, which establishes some of the motives and relationships that characters had earlier in the film. This is the kind of scene missing in Lars and the Real Girl.

To be fair, the film attempts one. In its opening scene, we watch as Lars stares out his window at the home in which his brother, Gus, and his wife, Karen, live. Karen soon emerges, and as she notices Lars through the window, he ducks away, hoping that she didn’t see him or, if she did, that she quietly goes away. The conversation that follows, if you want to call it that, is brief and filled with moments of immensely awkward silence, one person trying to start a conversation and the other trying to avoid one. The scene does its job. It establishes Lars as withdrawn, quiet, and awkward around people, which makes sense given what he does later on in the film. What it does not do, however, is explain why everyone comes to his defense later on or demonstrate why he is the object of someone’s affection.

Lars comes out of his shell during an interesting scene in which he first tantalizes his sister-in-law with news that he has found romance with a woman named Bianca and then leaves her and Gus speechless when they see that Bianca is actually a doll – not the inflatable kind, but one of those realistic, anatomically correct ones sold online, the stereotype goes, to men with abnormal fetishes or severe problems relating to members of the opposite sex. A film about that would likely be rather dark and somewhat off-putting, and I’m willing to bet that very few people are willing to go there. Rest assured then. Lars and the Real Girl keeps the relationship relatively tame. Bianca stays at Gus and Karen’s home because it isn’t proper for them to share a bed so soon in their relationship, and when they are alone, Lars is content to regale her with tales of his childhood; in his eyes, to do anything less would be uncivilized.

So Lars and the Real Girl is a G-rated version of an R-rated phenomenon, and in truth there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. However, at a time when newspapers print articles on Japanese men who prefer the company of life-like dolls than actual people and many young people find it increasingly difficult to communicate with people with words and facial expressions, it is not the film that we need. We need a film about reaching the detached and pulling back those that have become reliant upon -and confused by- cartoon fantasies, video games, and the promise of the online soul mate. Lars and the Real Girl isn’t this film.

Instead, it is one about a nice guy, the supportive townspeople he encounters, and his peculiar way of working out his problems. And that is just what the film claims Lars is doing – creating his own delusion and then working out some pretty powerful issues by resolving the delusion. As his doctor explains, “It will be over when he’d done with it.” In other words, ordering a doll online, giving it a backstory, falling in love with it, and then falling out of love with it are all just parts of one therapeutic process, just the human brain working it all out. It sounds nice; I just didn’t buy it.

This is certainly no fault of the cast. Ryan Gosling is thoroughly convincing as Lars, and Patricia Clarkson is a revelation as a family doctor who treats Lars in between her “treatments” of a very sick Bianca. Emily Mortinson and Paul Schneider are fine as Karen and Gus, and Kelli Garner is downright sweet and endearing as Margo, the co-worker with a crush on Lars. And if you accept that the town bands together to get Lars through a tough time by humoring his delusion, you are apt to find Lars and the Real Girl a pleasant comedy.

But let’s return to the missing establishment. Lars is never shown to have been a people person. He is never shown to be someone people cherished or would rally behind, and no one person utters an admission like “While Lars may be a freak, he is still our freak.” Also, nothing suggests that there was more to Lars than the quiet guy who turns down invitations to dinner or feels pain at the slightest touch. In other words, just who is Lars supposed to turn back into or be when the delusion is over? Such as explanation would justify Margo’s deep attachment to Lars and make us root for their eventual relationship. As the film is now, I kept asking myself why she liked him so much. Was it because of how he treated a mannequin, and just what does it mean if that’s the case? Sadly, the film does not explore these issues.

In the end, I liked Lars and the Real Girl. It’s a film that almost impossible to dislike entirely, especially with such a collection of extremely amiable characters. Yet it’s also a film that takes the easy road. It neither challenges the audience’s impression of the mentally ill nor gives them a new definition of normal. To be sure, the film has its heart in the right place and it has all of the ingredients of a great story. It just doesn’t know what to do with them, and so it content to play it safe. Everyone is decent, and Lars will be okay in the end. It is a family-friendly message, one that unfortunately struck me as particularly convenient. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars