This editorial includes spoilers for Lars and the Real Girl, a movie that sucks ass.
The story about Ryan Gosling is that he’s this intense young actor who doesn’t take part in the usual Hollywood bullshit. He’s for real, man, and he takes his work very seriously. He even grew a beard and got fat (this is the Hollywood equivalent of starring in that hatchet vs genital video) for The Lovely Bones… before he left/got fired from the project (depending on who you ask. But if he got fired, it was for being demanding and difficult in pursuit of his craft!). He has a reputation as an actor who has big things on his mind – he’s working on a film about Ugandan child soldiers, and he went to Chad to shoot a documentary on refugees from Darfur. Plus, he’s a really good actor. The guy can throw down and act. So why does he keep making such fucking bad movies?
I’m not saying this lightly. I’m also taking into account the fact that even a movie that seems good on the page can end up bad in the final cut. But here’s what’s so annoying about Gosling’s bad movies: they’re all obviously terrible from the get-go, and most of them seem like they’re geared at soccer moms. Obviously there’s The Notebook, which was his big breakthrough, and which is a terrible, manipulative piece of trash based on a trash book. I always assumed there was something mercenary about Gosling’s decision to be in that film, that he was looking to get out of the world of The Mickey Mouse Club and Young Hercules and make a name for himself. I get that. And you can forgive him because he had made The Believer, a really tough movie about a skinhead Jew (which, granted, sounds like the set up for a great anti-Semitic joke). On top of that I’m going to give him a free ride on The United States of Leland, a truly awful little movie, but one that I could see appealing to the pretty boy looking to go serious.
It’s his post-Notebook choices that baffle me. Almost as much as the acclaim these films have gotten baffle me. I was still on the Gosling bandwagon when Half Nelson came out, despite the fact that I really didn’t like the movie. Revisiting my review I see that I gave the film a 6 out of 10 essentially BECAUSE of Gosling; the sappy After School Special nature of the movie ruins it for me completely. Just because you use an indie shooting style doesn’t mean that your movie is rough or gritty or realistic, three things that Half Nelson wishes it were. I’m almost willing to cut Gosling some slack for this one – he manages to make a very fakey, very boring character come alive, and that’s a challenge – but that movie’s ending, where he finds redemption with a little black girl, makes me want to puke.
After that comes Fracture, a movie that embarrasses the Lumiere Brothers for pioneering theatrical exhibition. Peeling away the layers you can almost see why Gosling would take the film: he gets to work with Sir Anthony Hopkins… just like Cuba Gooding Jr in another courtroom movie, Instinct. Stay away from Anthony Hopkins in court, people. If Hopkins is on the docket, just say fuck it. Anyway, Fracture was obviously The Notebook 2 in Gosling’s head, a movie that would get his name out there some more. Bad gamble.
Even after Fracture I was on Gosling’s team. But then last week I finally caught up with the young actor’s latest movie and I’ve all but written him off now. That movie is Lars and the Real Girl, a stupid, false, cornball piece of crap that was largely ignored – and has been staying off most critics’ year end lists – but that got Gosling a Golden Globe nod. Short of an incredible performance in an amazing film sometime in the next year, Lars and the Real Girl is where Gosling and I part ways.
The film has been touted as sort of a modern version of Harvey, but the people saying that must only know Harvey through Leonard Maltin’s Video Guide. Gosling plays a loner weirdo who, suddenly and without adequate explanation, has a break from reality, orders a very expensive Real Doll, and then believes it’s his girlfriend. Like Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl plays with the idea of being dark and gritty but never actually goes there; the presence of a Real Doll is about as risque as this middle of the road oatmeal gets, and Lars and his silicone siren spend nights in separate bedrooms.
There’s a movie here, I don’t doubt, one about real people and the way they create illusions to get through their lives and how we support the illusions of one another to keep the world turning, but Lars and The Real Girl opts not to find it. Instead the film goes for what it’s supporters call a ‘Capra-esque’ feel, and which I call ‘a gallon of Cheez Wiz squirted into my mouth from the anus of the head of programming at Lifetime.’ Despite Lars being an obvious candidate for serial killing, the whole town rallies around him and his grand delusion, pretending the Real Doll is a real girl, and even going so far as to spend time with the doll and not Lars. Which could be seen as a statement about how unpleasant Lars, with his molester mustache and sudden bouts of Brando-rending-his-shirt emotion, is to be around, I suppose. There’s not a second of this film that rings true, except when Lars’ brother (played with seeming dismay by Paul Schneider) is baffled by the new anatomically correct resident of his home. But even the brother is quickly nullified by love and sweetness, and there’s not a single person who treats Lars the way any actual human being would treat a weirdo with such a massive psychological problem. It’s too much to ask me to set aside everything I have ever known about human behavior and Middle American sociology to accept this town that makes Whoville look like Detroit on a bad day.
Half Nelson offered Gosling a character he could work with. The character of Lars is a big, boring empty slate, and while I appreciate that crying to a doll might be an ‘acting challenge,’ it certainly isn’t an interesting one. At least Half Nelson bothered to try to pretend it wasn’t pablum for your grandmother; Lars has no such pretense. It may sound like I’m shitting on the very concept of a movie intended to make you feel good; I’m not. But a movie has to earn that, and Lars and the Real Girl never does. Gosling seems like a smart guy – how could he have read this script and felt that the film’s ending, which sees the whole town turn out in tears for THE FUNERAL OF A DOLL, was reasonable? The film jumps straight into fantasy territory there, so much so that I would have been more satisfied if a blue fairy had arrived and turned the doll into a real person. Lars’ problems are supposedly triggered by his fears about his sister-in-law’s pregnancy… but he forces his family to blow tens of thousands of dollars on an ambulance ride, hospital stay and finally a funeral when the new baby is around the corner. Then, at the end of the film he walks off with the supposedly mousy girl* who has fed his delusional fantasies and waits until he’s ready to be with her. Is there anything more pathetic than settling for the guy who was dating a fuck doll the week before? You want a feel good ending to Lars and the Real Girl: a ten minute sequence of Lars the Lunatic getting electroshock therapy. That would have sent me home whistling and skipping.
All of these movies have one thing in common: I would expect a with-it, cool, dedicated Method actor like Gosling to be making fun of this crap in his interviews. Instead he’s just making this crap, full stop.
Gosling, you’re on notice. You’ve proven you’re a very talented actor, not prove you can avoid starring in garbage and schmaltz.
*The beautiful Kelli Garner. I will never forgive this film for trying to make her plain.