Reality Bites ‘Lars’ But Misses ‘Dan’ for Seasonal Indie Quirks

Lars may be borderline agoraphobic and more socially
repressed than a UCSD undergrad, but true love is just a click away when the
introvert discovers a Web site that ships anatomically correct girlfriends on
the overnight express. So she doesn’t speak English, can’t walk and, oh yeah,
is made entirely of plastic. Maybe she’s the perfect woman. But is she the
right one for Lars?

The premise is a little absurd: One shy young man orders a
sex doll off the Internet, introducing her to friends and family as his
girlfriend, a paraplegic Brazilian/Danish missionary. But it’s pulled off with
such unflinching sincerity and deadpan poise that we can’t help but take it
seriously; in fact, “Lars and the Real Girl” is often touching and constantly
funny, its rare mix of guilty chuckles and laugh-out-loud tragedies intricately
woven by the brilliant screenwriting of Nancy Oliver (HBO original series “Six
Feet Under”) and an Oscar-worthy performance by Ryan Gosling (star of
“Fracture” and “Half Nelson”). When Lars asks his brother Gus (Paul Shneider)
to accommodate Bianca while she visits, he quickly takes her in — after all, it
wouldn’t be prudent to share a room out of wedlock — and sets up an appointment
with Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), the local shrink, who advises everyone to play
along until Lars is ready for the truth.

And so they do. From there, it’s a journey through the usual
maze of any relationship: Bianca sleeps in the guest room while Lars lives in
the garage, and she volunteers at the children’s center when he’s away at work.
But at the heart of the film is the way Lars’ family and small town cater to
his illusions. They push her wheelchair, dress and bathe her — even elect her
to the school board, all for the sake of a shy little man in desperate need of
love. They see a friend who’s sick and do everything in their power to help
him, no matter how hard it is to keep a straight face. It’s thrilling to find a
major motion picture that can carry a premise belonging in a Saturday Night
Live skit to such earnest depths, yet still wade in a sea of humor.

As the whole community begins to take part in Lars’
delusion, the film’s focus turns away from the elephant in the room — a
silicone doll in fishnet stockings — to the obvious pain that underpins Lars’
descent into fantasy. If Gosling had let up for even an instant, the movie’s
delicate spell would shatter. Instead, his affection for Bianca, played by a
lovely Nordstrom’s mannequin, is so genuine that the elephant only rears its
head when, in perfect comedic timing, the surrounding characters have to stop
and remind themselves of the absurdity of it all.

Like that sweet little girl scout standing outside the
supermarket pushing those Tag-Alongs on us, “Dan in Real Life” is pretty cute —
but how many packaged movies about well-to-do New Englanders holding family
reunions do we really need? There seems to be a burgeoning demand for sappy
romantic comedies centered on Uncle Carl’s follies as he falls in love with
Uncle Bob’s hotter half. The result is tepid chaos — nobody gets very heated in
this cinematic suburbia, a fairytale about what families would be like if Mr.
Rogers were the prototype for every father and minivans ran on moon dust
instead of gasoline.

Here’s a family that hosts talent shows and plays team
crossword puzzles to decide who’ll do the breakfast dishes — even supports
girlfriend swaps for the greater good of the film. Superb acting by Ma and Pa
(Diane Wiest and John Mahoney) still can’t make this Betty Crocker story ring
true. Who are these people? Where the hell were they exported from, and can
somebody please take them back?

Donning the guise of lonely widower who embarks on an
insipid journey of romantic shenanigans with his brother’s (Dane Cook) special
lady (Juliette Binoche), Steve Carell plays Dan Burns, father to three rather
demanding girls for spawn of a single parent. Famed for his schticky inability
to “get some” and magnificent awkwardness ’round the office, Carell is a
toned-down clone of his previous roles — falling into the Ben Stiller trap, he
hits a character-acting wall, playing variations of either the tensely geeky middle-ager
or the placid average Joe. Both are visible in Dan Burns, king of neutrality, a
guy so repressed he makes Bea Arthur look wild. Even when he manages to sneak
in a Michael Scott quip or two (“Put it on my tab”), it seems more like a
shoutout to “Office” fans than a valid line of dialogue for dull-ass Dan.

There are, however, moments of genuine shock and speckles of
fun. After all, director Peter Hedges is a veteran of troubled family flicks,
helming movies like “Pieces of April” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” This
could be why “Dan” feels a lot deeper then it is, gripping its moody and
uncomfortable tone more tighly with each passing scene. Each character’s
palpable discomfort evokes a much gentler “Family Stone,” at times even
suggesting that Sarah Jessica Parker will wasp into the room with her
uncomfortable clam-throat. It’s this gentleness that detracts from the film’s
overall memorability, with most genuine awkwardness replaced by a Debbie-Downer

Predictably, “Dan” doesn’t really explore any new cinematic
territory — given, it was made in the spirit of light entertainment — and ends
up enjoyable for no other reason than its ability to minimize Dane Cook’s
screen time. Sure, everyone knows how it’s going to end: Somehow all these people
will learn some valuable lesson, and blah blah blah — but at least it doesn’t
get all up in our faces with noise-based comedy, a method Cook has more than
mastered. No, that’s a stomach ache for another day.

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